As 23-year-old Sahiba lines up for a food packet at a temporary shelter home in Mumbai’s Bandra, she is worried that her 18-month-old child, Noor Ali, might catch an infection. Ali, a cancer patient, had completed four sessions of chemotherapy at Tata Memorial Hospital, before he was brought to a temporary shelter in a hall at the building of Uttar Bharatiya Sangh College in Bandra Kurla Complex.
Ali is not the only patient from the hospital transferred to this shelter as part of a plan to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. On Thursday evening, civic authorities and hospital management moved 17 outstation cancer patients, in between treatment sessions with no roof over their heads, to this facility along with family members. Before this, they were staying on the pavement outside the hospital.
However, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made another appeal asking citizens to stay inside and practice “social distancing”, to slow the spread of COVID-19, the cancer patients, suffering from low immunity, have to jostle for space in the shelter with Mumbai’s homeless and stranded migrant workers.
The patients sleep on the floor on cloths within a few feet of each other. “I am worried. One person gets a cold and everyone gets it. They say the virus spreads this way,” says Sahiba.
On Friday, The Indian Express visited the facility with 101 people, all crammed into the hall, which has one common toilet, let alone any isolation facility. Sahiba’s husband, Zafar, 25, says, “We were better off on the road (outside the hospital). There was a lot more space.”
The last 10 days have been tough on the family that had travelled from Madhya Pradesh for Noor’s treatment two months ago. “We could not afford to rent a place in Mumbai. So we have been staying on the road outside the hospital. Noor requires frequent visits to the hospital,” says Zafar, who was earning Rs 200 rupees as a construction labourer back home in Jabalpur.
Following Noor’s diagnosis, the entire family, including Zafar’s 43-year-old mother Nazneen and 18-year-old sister Muskaan, moved to Mumbai. “We had some savings which we brought with us, but two days into the lockdown, even those dried up,” he says. The last few days, with shops closed and restaurants shut, Nazneen says they have been solely dependent on food supplies from good Samaritans. “But then, Noor requires pasteurised milk only,” Sahiba says.
On Friday, after being told of the danger of clubbing cancer survivors with the other homeless, civic and revenue department authorities attempted to segregate the patients and families from the rest.
Mumbai municipality’s Assistant Commissioner (Planning) Dr Sangeeta Hasnale says, “An arrangement of moving the patients and their families to an alternate self-contained facility in Parel (near the hospital) is being made.”
Zafar says they missed Noor’s OPD appointment on Friday morning as they have been transferred far away. Ushadevi Kesari, 31, harbours the same complaint. “We missed my husband’s appointment at the hospital. Humko yahan se le chalo (Please take us out of here),” she says.
Like the Ali family, six members of the Kesari family from Uttar Pradesh were camping outside the hospital for the past month till they were brought to Bandra’s temporary shelter. Her husband, Surendra, the sole breadwinner of the family, has been detected with cancer. “My mother-in-law is in our village, she keeps asking us to come back, but how can we? His treatment is still on,” says Ushadevi.
Amit, her 10-year-old son, loves chocolates but the mother says she has not even been able to feed him and her younger daughter, 18-month-old Ruhi, milk since the lockdown. The family knows absolutely nothing about the virus scare.
Days before the lockdown was announced, Sanjay Kumar, 20, and his family landed in Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh on March 18, after he was advised to get screened by doctors at the Parel hospital. His leg is heavily bandaged but brother Vijay Kumar, 25, says the medics at the hospital are yet to attend to him. “They keep saying emergency hai to kahin aur dikha lo,” says Vijay, adding that if they had money, why would they come to this facility.
Among the stranded patients is Mohammad Tanveer, 22, a Begusarai resident and Kiran Mondal, 52, also from Bihar, who with their family members, are stuck despite being allowed to leave the city by hospital authorities as their trains were cancelled.
“Isse to Tata ke paas hi achhe thay (we were better off outside Tata hospital),” Tanveer says.
Syed Humayun Jafri, head, public relations, TMH, says, “We have moved 38 patients and their family members from outside Mumbai, who were staying on the footpath and were facing difficulties in the wake of the lockdown. Many of these are patients who have been discharged. Once the lockdown is lifted, we plan to move them to a better facility.”
Jafri says 21 of 38 patients and their families have been accommodated in self-contained rooms at Khargar, Ghatkopar and various other places. The hospital has made an appeal for help with more accommodation facilities near its Parel facility.
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