Until last year, 22-year-old Ratnabh Mukerjei, fresh out of college, had very different plans. A graduate in Economics from Symbiosis University, he was looking to move abroad for his Masters when Covid-19 struck and upset his plans. Now cooped up at his sister’s residence in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai, he spends 14 to 16 hours a day taking calls from families of those suffering from the disease, coordinating with hospital staff, FDA inspectors and officials at the BMC war rooms, trying to arrange ventilator beds and ambulances, and source remdesivir – the anti-viral drug that has gained prominence for its use in fighting the deadly infection.
Mukerjei is just one among a team of around 80 volunteers manning the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) helpline, set up following the surge in Covid-19 cases in Mumbai last month.
Led by Ruben Mascarenhas, AAP’s national joint secretary, who has gained an impressive following on Twitter for his work during the crisis, the helpline –7718812200 – receives scores of call everyday from family members of Covid-19 patients seeking help.
Mukerjei is one of the most hardworking members of his team, says Mascarenhas, adding most of them are not members of the party but regular people looking to make a difference in the trying times.
“Our volunteers talk to the war rooms set up by the BMC for every ward. When someone from a political party calls, they do tend to get a better response than the common man,” says Mascarenhas, whose Twitter handle is also flooded with calls for help, which is in addition to the number of SOS he receives on his phone.
At any given point of time, the helpline has around eight people available to take the calls. The volunteers also talk to doctors at various hospitals to find out about the actual availability of beds. “While the BMC dashboard may say that a certain number of beds is available at a particular hospital, sometimes when the patient calls there, the hospital says there are no beds,” says Mascarenhas.
A major hurdle that the volunteers face is in contacting government officials. “They are busy themselves so I cannot blame them. But at times getting a response from, let’s say, an FDA inspector (responsible for supplying remdesivir) can take hours. In some instances, this delay proves critical,” says Mukerjei, who belongs to Delhi and had moved to Mumbai last year to intern with the AAP on a health policy research project.
Until two weeks back, the helpline used to receive around 150 to 200 calls a day; with the surge easing up a little in the Maharashtra capital now, it has dropped to 100 calls a day.
Still, a majority of calls are either for a ventilator bed or remdesivir, Mukerjei tells The Indian Express.
When the volunteers can’t arrange for something, the call is “escalated” to Mascarenhas and his colleagues in the AAP. “We then try to get in touch with MPs like Priyanka Chaturvedi (Shiv Sena), who has been helpful. I also coordinate with Congress MLA Zeeshan Siddiqui. We try to keep the political boundaries at bay in arranging help,” says Mascarenhas.
Mukerjei says the helpline has been able to provide hospital beds or remdesivir in around 40-50 per cent of the cases. “In some cases, however, we are not able to help out in time and the patient passes away. The loss is heartbreaking,” he says.
The intense nature of the work does take a toll on Mukerjei, who admits to not being able to have his meals on time, having nightmares, and occasional breakdowns. “Following my counsellor’s advice, I have started taking breaks and indulge in reading. My condition has improved since,” says Mukerjei.
“We realised that these issues are difficult to deal with and tied up with some counsellors to help our volunteers,” says Mascarenhas.
Of the 80 people currently manning the helpline, nearly 75 per cent are volunteers (like Mukerjei) while others are AAP workers. “ A majority of those who have come forward are youngsters. They don’t need to join the party to volunteer. As it is, people are restricted to their houses due to the lockdown. As the tragedy unfolds, a lot of them say they want to be a part of the solution instead of watching Netflix at home,” Mascarenhas adds.