*Trigger Warning: Covid Death*
Saheli Chakraborty is a resident of Kolkata and has recently passed out from NUJS (National University of Juridical Sciences), Kolkata. For the past several weeks, she wakes up every morning with hundreds of missed calls on her phone. Throughout the day, the number doesn’t decrease. These calls are from people in dire need of oxygen for patients gasping for breath.
Along with her small team, she started their project called Hriday during this pandemic, where they took to providing ration to economically deprived people during the lockdown and after Amphan hit the state. Currently, they provide Oxygen cylinders majorly to the needy without any rent amount. I spoke to her at length, trying to find out their experience with this project and the challenges.
“The biggest challenge is to say no as an answer,” confesses Saheli. “We do not have unlimited resource and there is a dearth of cylinders throughout the state. But when someone calls us and tells us how they’ve called multiple places for oxygen and couldn’t find one and now we too have to turn them down, that is the most helpless part of doing this,” she added.
She further adds how she started with the idea of giving rent-free oxygen to underprivileged patients who could not even provide a rent amount. “But it’s almost impossible to ever find out if that person really needs it at that point in time or not. This is completely on trust. You never know if that cylinder is coming back or when.”
Hoarding is a big issue not only in Bengal but across the country. There is no regulation of oxygen cylinders or medicines by the government. Everything one procures is coming through multiple hands. If one wants to buy a cylinder, the cost of that could literally touch the sky. Why is there still no step to stop the hoarding of essential drugs, oxygen, and so forth by predatory businesses?
Saheli shares how nowadays, her job from morning to night is to acquire funds to buy more cylinders, struggling to find sources to procure those cylinders and along with her team, attend calls for patients prescribed to get oxygen at the earliest.
When I asked her about her mental health conditions, being involved in such over-consuming work, she tells me, “Sometimes I want to return everyone’s money, all the people who donated, because as a small team how much can we do amidst the massive scale of this crisis and the gross incompetence and neglect of the government.
“But it’s not easy to leave doing this once you’re there because it is a question of someone’s life and death. One more call you get and you’re again trying to arrange at least something, even with oxygen cans if any are left with us for that day. It’s a constant turmoil in the mind.”
This is yet another story of individuals coming out in Bengal to do as much as their resources let them. Some provide oxygen, some deliver food to Covid patients, while others help patients with hospital bed leads. As a citizen of a welfare state where there is a provision to have an elected government vested with specific responsibilities, one simply being to save our lives, these citizen initiatives save the day.
I wonder if we should really celebrate these individuals going out of their ways, some risking their lives to provide desperate support to a broken-down system? No, this question is not posed to demean these people providing help. But was it their job is what I ask. Then what about the ones elected for this purpose, who have all the resources to execute necessary actions, all the power to take the decisions.
Dr Sudipto Chowdhury, currently practising at Apollo Hospital, Kolkata, tells me categorically, “Let’s face it, the healthcare system was always a farce in this country. No matter how much you suddenly try and do in this pandemic, it will not even come closer to what is required.”
Yes, beds have been increased to a certain extent in hospitals, but adequate staff required from doctors to nurses to medicines to other infrastructural needs are unbelievably far from being met.
The Chief Minister should have started working towards massive reforms in the hospitals since November, but this was clearly not the priority. A lockdown could have been announced right after the election results were declared, but she decided to wait until Eid was over.
“There is one key issue that doctors all over the country have been speaking for, but this somehow never becomes an issue, not in the media, certainly not in the election campaigns,” he adds.
“There needs to be a massive increase in the budget allotted to healthcare. We are at the lowest in the world. How do you expect to cope up now? There’s little meaning in blaming the governments when no one’s ready to speak about the root issue.
“Currently, the only things that could be done to save a dead system are to control hoarding of essentials, set up an upper limit to cost for Covid treatment per bed and increase testing because West Bengal literally has the least data.”
As the number of deaths and people affected by Covid-19 increase in Bengal, especially after the elections, our Chief Minister does not seem to stop the blame game of how much it is because of our Prime Minister and his party that the virus has spread in Bengal and in how many ways the Centre keeps us deprived of essentials rather than focusing more on her own responsibilities that do not need the Centre.
The eight phased elections did worsen the situation in Bengal. We learnt yet again that it is okay to let people die in order to save this thing called “democracy”. Oxymoron indeed?
“Apart from people gathering in large numbers during elections, other reasons for a huge spike in cases is inadequate testing and lack of testing facilities. In rural Bengal, most of the population is still not following the Covid-19 norms, including not knowing the correct way of wearing a mask,” shares Dr Debarati Chakrabarti practising at the Apollo hospital Kolkata.
“It is unbelievable that there are people even in the cities who are still treating Covid-19 as common cold and flu and only on further aggravating are rushing to hospitals. But by that time, they have already contacted others and helped spread the virus rapidly,” she adds.
Where is the messaging from the government to educate and update people regularly, keeping them on track with the changing behaviour of the virus? Where is the messaging to ensure that the public follows covid protocol? The state should work at setting up field hospitals and open up hotels for the unhoused.
What still surprises, rather, shocks me, is that until the very last phase of the elections, the issue of the pandemic was not even raised in the campaigns.
The lack of adequate health care infrastructure, absence of required hospital beds, people desperately craving for oxygen and medicines, lack of preparation on the ground were not the deciding factors for an election amidst the biggest health crisis. It never is at other times too, yes. But not even now?
At the end of the interview, Saheli tells me, “Even if I can save one, I can sleep peacefully that night even though I know I couldn’t save so many others.” It makes me want to scream at our leaders and ask, “How do you sleep?”