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From oxygen to emotional support, how NGOs are breathing life into India’s Covid fight

As cases continue to rise, more and more people are banking on the NGOs to provide them assistance. From non-stop SOS calls to ambulance services, the need for critical care has risen exponentially.

Written by Aashi Sadana | New Delhi |
Updated: May 13, 2021 3:50:41 pm
Covid Care Network’s “Oxygen on Wheels’’ works round the clock, providing free oxygen supply while transporting patients to hospitals. (Source: Covid Care Network)

66, 65, 64… the reading on the oximeter kept falling every second as a helpless daughter brought her mother, suffering from Covid-19, to the Hemkunt Foundation. After hours searching for vacant beds in Delhi hospitals, this was their last resort. It was still the early stages of India’s second wave, and its ferocity was leaving people panicked like never before.

“I still remember that day, being so close to a critical covid patient, was still a new and scary thing for us,” recalls Harteerath Singh, Hemkunt’s Community Development Director.

“We immediately connected her to an oxygen cylinder, but her vitals failed to rise,” Singh tells us. Not knowing what to do next, Singh dialled one of his doctor friends who told him to cut the oxygen supply as the patient had less chances of survival. “She was dying in front of me and I was told to cut her only source of hope,” Singh says. “No, we did not do it,” he reaffirms.

While keeping the patient on constant oxygen supply, the team got together and started looking for a bed. After 3 hours, the patient was admitted to a hospital, her vitals were up to 85 and she eventually survived. “I felt a little less helpless that day, knowing that we as individuals can do something about this deadly disease.”

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Like him, a group of frontline workers, alongside nurses and doctors are manning the wall against the virus. Covid winners, lawyers, students, artists among others are stepping out of their houses, into the virus war zone to help whenever there is need, and several non-governmental organisations, like the Hemkunt Foundation, are providing them logistical support to do so.

“We went on the ground, did testing where no one did. Where ambulance drivers were not able to touch the patients, we took our own vehicles to arrange the transport,” says Satyarup Sidhhanta, general secretary of the Kolkata-based Covid Care Network (CCN). Siddhanta, who is a mountaineer by profession, joined the organisation after his relative tested positive during the first wave. “There was so much fear and distress, with people dying next to each other, CCN was for people who have the heart to be at the centre of battleground and assist covid patients in whatever way possible,” he says.

As cases continue to rise, more and more people are banking on the NGOs to provide them assistance. From non-stop SOS calls to ambulance services, the need for critical care has risen exponentially. “By March 2021, the requirements became much more critical and time bound, that too in a very volatile market of life support supplies,” says a spokesperson for United Way Delhi, an organisation working for Covid relief in NCR.


It’s all about the oxygen

Covid relief in the first wave was centred around raising awareness, preventive treatment, free medical support, providing nutritious meals etc. In the second wave, however, it has all come down to oxygen supply.

Hemkunt Foundation has come up with “Oxygen Drives” and “Oxygen Langars” where liquid medical oxygen is provided to Covid-19 patients free of cost. The langars are set up in open spaces with a minimal shelter and chairs yoked to oxygen concentrators. Each chair has one oxygen concentrator and can provide oxygen to a critical patient for several hours.


For those unable to arrange transport, the organisation currently has four ambulances and 13 cars equipped with oxygen concentrators. About 70 volunteers are involved in these initiatives.

Covid Care Network’s “Oxygen on Wheels’’ works round the clock, providing free oxygen supply while transporting patients to hospitals.

“Waiting time makes all the difference,” Siddhanta says. “During this time, even if we provide the patients with a supply of 5 litre per minute, critical care can be prevented, ‘’ he adds, highlighting that if a patient recovers faster, more beds will be released for others. CCN has also started renting oximeters to those who cannot afford it.

Around 70 volunteers are involved in Hemkunt organisations’ Covid relief in Delhi NCR. (Source: Hemkunt Foundation)

On call 24/7

Twenty-four seven helplines, ringing continuously with SOS calls, help these organisations reach patients in need. The requests range from hospital beds to consultation on falling oxygen levels, medicines and ultimately a cylinder.


“We get calls throughout the night, and the frequency has gone up in such a way that our one number is connected to 15 different lines now,” Siddhanta says. There have been situations in which we get a call at 11 pm, but the ambulance was not arranged till morning.” In such situations, he adds, “we stay with them, try to calm them down and provide whatever assistance we can in the situation.”

A lot of the volunteers attending the SOS calls are medical students. “We have tied up with several medical colleges, as their knowledge of bed vacancy in hospitals helps us hasten the process,” Siddhanta tells us. Free medical consultancy, prescriptions as well as advisory for patients at home are some of the other services CCN has been providing on its helpline.

O2 centre of Hemkunt Foundation for covid-19 patients. (Source: Hemkunt Foundation)

Setting up Covid facilities

The Hemkunt Foundation opened a 500-bed “O2 Centre” in Gurgaon recently. This facility has separate wards for critical patients and doctors, volunteers, housekeeping staff attending to it full time. Harteerath Singh tells us that this was built keeping in mind a third wave. “We can increase its capacity to around 2,000 beds if the situation gets worse, or if we have to face another covid wave,” Singh says. Even as the surge in Delhi and suburbs starts to ebb, a line of cars and patients flocking in is a common sight at the facility.


In Kolkata, CCN converted the Uttirna Stadium into a 100-bed facility in just three days with the support of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “Initially, the aim was to have a safe home for people whose house did not have enough space for isolation,” Siddhanta says.

The stadium has now become a full covid hospital, currently having 90 beds for males and 40 for females. “A channel for oxygen will be put to connect an oxygen line for all the beds,” Siddhanta informs us.

United Way Delhi is also working on establishing new covid facilities, including a “Police Covid Care Centre”. The organisation has been donating personal protection equipment, groceries, and sanitation essential kits to the personnel and other frontline workers.

How are they protecting themselves from the virus?

While working in close proximity with Covid patients, the volunteers wear two masks, one surgical and one N95. “We have divided our offices in red and green zones, and anyone in contact with patients does not cross into the green areas,” Siddhanta says. The organisation also follows strict protocols for removing and dumping the PPE kits. All their eligible volunteers have been vaccinated.

For the covid task force of United Way Delhi, separate living areas have been made. “Our members left their homes and live somewhere else to ensure the safety of their families as they work on-ground,” they say.

Second wave vs the first one

Harteerath Singh says they never anticipated the crisis to pivot like this. “In the first wave, we got about 100 requests a month for food needs and we could easily cater all the demands,” he says.

The second wave has resulted in “over 15,000 requests each month, all in need of critical care”. Singh adds: “I have people who haven’t slept for three days.”

In Bengal, Satyarup tells us about the case “boom” after election rallies started for state elections. “Our 100-150 calls a day increased to over 1,000 after rallies started happening amid a new covid wave,” he says.

United Way Delhi says working in the second wave is “scary and dangerous.” “Along with relentless work, there is also a constant feeling of helplessness among the staff as we witness an exponential number of cases each day with limited resources and time constraints.”

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First published on: 13-05-2021 at 01:31:41 pm
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