Unseen Warriors of COVID: From arranging oxygen to ambulances, volunteers in Kashmir battle stress to save lives

Volunteers at Social Reform Organisation (SRO) in Kashmir field anxious SOS calls, provide oxygen support to patients, arrange ambulance service, doctor consultations and burials while awaiting their own vaccines

Quratulain Rehbar May 19, 2021 18:29:45 IST

Editor's note: As the second wave of coronavirus infections ravages parts of India, millions of front-line workers and citizens are caught up in the middle, providing their services to distressed families on one hand while trying to cope themselves on the other. This is part ten of a series profiling the stories of these people.

On 12 May, around 6 pm, nurse Anu Kaur received a frantic call from her organisation in Srinagar.

The 25-year-old was asked to reach Shri Maharja Hari Singh hospital (SMHS) where she was to tend to a COVID-19 patient, a 50-year-old woman who had developed bilateral pneumonia and had tuberculosis.

The woman, Fehmeeda Jan, was abandoned by her family at hospital and urgently required a caretaker. Her condition was deteriorating.

“Initially I was nervous when I heard the patient was in serious condition,” Kaur said. “I also thought there'd be enough staff at the hospital to take care of her.”

But Kaur quickly changed her mind. She immediately left for the hospital, along with another colleague, to see Jan.

Kaur checked Jan's vitals and gave her the injections that the doctors had prescribed.

When Kaur awoke the next day, she heard Jan had died due to complications.

For Kaur and other volunteers at Social Reform Organisation (SRO) Kashmir, anxious SOS calls, reaching out to places that provide oxygen, NIV equipment, ambulance, burials, and doctor consultations is a service they provide 24x7.

Kashmir doesn’t have a vigorous public healthcare system. As of 18 May, it had recorded 3,967 active COVID-19 cases, taking its tally to 2,51,919, while the toll was at 3,293.

At such a moment, non-profit organisations like SRO have stepped forward.

SRO was established in 2005 to work for the benefit of earthquake victims in Kashmir. Eventually, it started providing basic healthcare facilities for the poor.

At the moment, it helps COVID patients and their families. It has provided oxygen support to at least 750 patients over the past month and has provided ambulances to around 700 patients.

In March 2020 alone, SRO helped 1,500 affected families and provided them with a month's worth of rations.

'Stressed but it is my job to keep going'

These volunteers also bury non-locals who have died due to COVID. People who have been helped by these volunteers call them 'a family organisation'.

Kaur, who worked at one of the hospitals in the Valley, lost her job after the Narendra Modi government stripped Kashmir off its special status.

It was just two month ago that Kaur learned that SRO needed a nurse for its new “Healing Hand” initiative that supports those without caretakers. She decided to move from Tral to Srinagar.

SRO workers at their office in Srinagar lifting cylinders. Image courtesy: SRO Srinagar

“Initially I felt a lot of stress," Kaur admitted. "But eventually I realised that as a frontline worker it is my job to keep going.”

Shahid Ahmad, 23, looks fatigued.

Ahmad, another volunteer, is sitting in the SRO control room in Batamaloo just two days after recovering from COVID-19.

Nevertheless, he is busy arranging equipment and fielding distress calls. Ahmad has witnessed people gasping for oxygen and has worked tirelessly over the past year.

“I just recovered. But my mother is COVID positive now. I took a break for the past few weeks, but now it’s time to restart my work," Ahmad said. There are around 25 volunteers at SRO working in shifts. They recently started an 'oxygen run' programme which is of great help to the public.

Mohammad Afaaq Sayeed, 47, heads oxygen planning at SRO. Sayeed said that at some point, almost every volunteer and their families, have been infected with the coronavirus.

“In my extended family, we had 25 cases of COVID. I took the virus home," he said ruefully. “But it also gives us immense pleasure to work for humanity,” he added.

No vaccination

Even after being at the forefront of the battle against COVID, the volunteers at SRO are yet to receive their vaccinations. Sayeed said he'd requested the administration that all the volunteers at SRO should be vaccinated, but nothing has been done yet.

Kashmir witnessed its vaccination drive being halted over the past few days. This, even though the Lt. Governor set a 10-day deadline to achieve a target of 100 percent vaccination in the above 45 age group. Officials have blamed the delay in supply of vaccines.

“We are not protected because we are not vaccinated,” Sayeed said.The grim situation all over the country has left Kashmiris with no choice but to stay on constant alert. The lockdown also in the Valley has been extended till 24 May.

Shahid, a volunteer, showing the stock at the SRO office. Image courtesy: Quratulain Rehbar

Difficulties at work

Volunteers at SRO said they need more hands to help manage the workload, but only a few people have stepped forward. “Even those that initially came forward are frightened seeing the current trends. We are extremely grateful for the few volunteers that have sacrificed in order to save lives,” Sayeed said.

SRO faces another pressing concern. Most people don't return oxygen cylinders or concentrators. Sometimes, they sent it to their relatives.

“I don’t blame the people because I think it is a survival instinct in Kashmiris, but we also suffer due to this," said Sayeed. “When our volunteers ask for the equipment to be returned, they are treated rudely at times. Some feel we are being paid for it or we're doing the government's job.”

Sayeed said SRO can work with the government, but not for the government as it is entirely people-driven.

Read other parts of the series here

Updated Date: May 27, 2021 18:31:38 IST

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