Currently, the Maharashtra Emergency Ambulance Service (MEMS), which runs the 108 toll free helpline, has allocated 66 ambulances for COVID-19 patients and 30 ambulances for others. Across Maharashtra, MEMS has committed 305 ambulances on COVID-19 duty.
While a death audit committee report – survey conducted by BMC – had advised that an ambulance be stationed near slum settlements for transporting critical and patients suffering from breathlessness in Mumbai, the recommendation is yet to be implemented. Patients and civic representatives said waiting time for an ambulance is anywhere between three to six hours.
“To pick up a COVID-19 patient, the driver has to wear PPE. After dropping the patient, the entire ambulance has to sanitised. The whole process of wearing and removing PPE and of cleaning ambulance can take two to three hours. This results in a longer waiting time,” said Alpa Jadhav, the corporator representing Andheri West.
Ambulance shortage has also resulted in delays in taking away bodies from hospitals. On April 26, as the Muslim community the second fast of Ramzan, a family waited for seven hours for an ambulance in St George’s hospital to carry their 63-year-old mother to the cemetery. The senior citizen died at 2.45 am due to COVID-19. After the hospital failed to provide an ambulance, the family started contacting different hospitals for an ambulance. A private ambulance was finally arranged around 3.30 pm.
“We cannot use our own ambulances due to infection concerns. Whenever there is a death, each time we have to wait for BMC to send a vehicle,” said medical superintendent Dr Akash Khobragade. The hospital came across three cases where families had to wait for over five hours for an ambulance.
On April 30, the state government issued a notification asking the disaster management cell of BMC to control mobilisation of ambulances in the city. As per an affidavit submitted by the BMC to the Bombay High Court on April 25, it has earmarked 60 civic ambulances for COVID-19 patients, and 30 for others.
This has had its own impact. Vasudeo Natekar, who suffered from a heart ailment, died as he waited for an ambulance earlier this week. Pralhad Worlikar of Worli Koliwada Boat Owners Association said that at Worli Koliwada, a hotspot with a population of 80,000, non-COVID patients were not getting as much attention.
“Due to COVID-19, the demand for an ambulance has increased and in many cases, people suffering from other diseases, fail to get an ambulance. The BMC had promised a dedicated ambulance but it is yet to arrived,” Worlikar said.
In another case in the slum, on April 13, Dilip Navrat (50) died at home after waiting for an ambulance for more than six hours. According to a neighbour, the family called 108 and other helplines but to no avail. “He was unwell and on April 13 afternoon, suffered an epilepsy attack. Local doctors asked to get him admitted. The ambulance operator said that all the ambulances were busy in handling COVID-19 patients. By the time ambulance came, Navrat had lost his life,” a neighbour said.
On Thursday, a man named Sachin Gawane raised the issue on Twitter and tagged Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray. In reply to the tweet, Aaditya, the Worli MLA, agreed that there is shortage of ambulances and they are trying to resolve the issue.
A senior BMC official said an ambulance was arranged for Koliwada but they could not find a driver for it. “Nobody is ready to ferry COVID-19 patients. We have even offered them higher salary.”