Volunteers are fielding hundreds of phone calls a day to help ease the pressure on government resources — but the work is not easy.

Civil defence volunteer teamCivil Defence Team working in Bengaluru
news COVID-19 Relief Wednesday, April 21, 2021 - 12:55

At 9 pm on Saturday night, Saqib Idrees, a volunteer working with an Emergency Response Team in Lingarajapuram in Bengaluru received a message from the relative of a COVID-19 patient seeking a plasma donor. 

Saqib shared contacts of people who might be able to help but two hours later, he received a message from the same person which read, "My aunt is no more. Please remember her in your prayers."

"You go numb when you receive messages like this,” Saqib says, speaking to TNM. ”But within minutes, you will be dealing with the next case. My phone was constantly ringing, with people on the other end requesting oxygen cylinders or looking for hospital beds,” he says. 

Fifteen kilometres away in Yelahanka in the north of Bengaluru, Nagenderan M, a member of the Quick Response Team set up by the Civil Defence, says, “I received 16 requests for a hospital bed on Monday and I could find a bed only for nine people. I was happy about that but in some ways you think about the seven people you were unable to arrange the beds for.”  

The experiences of Saqib and Nagenderan capture the helplessness and heartbreak faced by volunteers handling emergency response in Bengaluru this week. 

Volunteer groups are stepping in to answer distress calls related to COVID-19 in the city as alternatives to the main helpline — 1912 — and the zone-level helplines of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the civic body managing the city’s administration. The Karnataka government has also started a control room — 080-22262846, 9448978874 — at the Drug Controller’s office in Bengaluru to address requests for liquid oxygen supply.

But with thousands of people in distress and desperate to try as many sources as possible for help, volunteer helplines are receiving endless calls in the last few days. “I tried more than 30-40 hospitals and tried the BBMP helplines for three days. I couldn't get a bed for my relative and she was already in a critical condition as her (oxygen) saturation level was 80 and today, it dropped to 60,” Sidra Hayath, a resident of Frazer Town in the city seeking an ICU bed says.

She was not alone. Many others in the city called up volunteer helplines publicised on social media after official channels could not help them. Teams managing helplines in Bengaluru are fielding hundreds of such requests every day from people looking for oxygen cylinders, medicines like Remdesivir, and access to ambulances and hospital beds. One of Saqib’s colleagues, Ekramulla Sharieff, also connected to the Emergency Response Team, says the 14 volunteers managing their helplines received 1,600 phone calls on Monday alone. “Most of the calls were people desperately looking for oxygen cylinders or hospital beds and in some cases the oxygen saturation levels were below 85,” Ekramulla says. 

Dhruv Jatti, who is managing a student-run volunteer team, Bengaluru Student Community, also attended to requests on Tuesday. “But after 3 pm, we were unable to help patients who were looking for an ICU bed. They were not available,” Dhruv says. According to data provided by the Karnataka Health Department, 97% of the ICU beds for COVID-19 patients in Bengaluru were occupied as of Tuesday night. 

Volunteer groups focusing on COVID-19 relief came up in the city a year ago when the pandemic affected Bengaluru. They were set up to help people tide over the crisis by providing food, shelter and access to medical help. In the past week, the same groups have been revived in the city as it faces a surge of COVID-19 cases once again, with numbers higher than last year. 

The work done by volunteer groups in the first wave is now helping them find solutions quickly in the second. “We now have the contacts of the hospitals and we know some of the people involved in person. That has definitely helped us connect a patient faster to what they need,” says Saqib. 

His views are echoed by Nagenderan, who was part of the Civil Defence team which worked with a government control room last year. “Because I worked extensively in the Yelahanka, Dasarahalli area and formed personal connections, I now know who the relevant person is to contact in hospitals and who has ambulances in this area. That helped me respond to requests quicker today,” says Nagenderan. 

Civil Defence is a volunteer-based emergency response team that supports frontline emergency services. But unlike in 2020, the Karnataka government has not set up a control room to coordinate the efforts of the Civil Defence team. “We are around 25 of us spread out across the city in different places and connected by phone. It would be helpful if there was a control room where we could meet, discuss and share resources with each other,” says Nagenderan. 

Volunteer efforts can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Saqib, for instance, has set aside his businesses to tend to distress calls and help people find hospital beds. “There are many moments where we think we are just regular people trying to help. But we have set aside things in our day-to-day life to come forward and do this,” he says. 

The volunteers say that in most cases, the delay in getting people to hospitals is leading to their condition worsening, sometimes even leading to deaths. Bengaluru reported a sharp increase in fatalities among COVID-19 patients on Monday when the city recorded 97 deaths. The city recorded a further 92 deaths on Tuesday and those managing crematoriums in the city said that the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the city is even higher. “On Monday, there were 29 dead bodies here and yesterday (Tuesday) there were 35 dead bodies cremated. In some cases, the patient died even before the COVID-19 test result had come,” says Parashuram, who manages the crematorium in MS Palya in the city.  

Bengaluru recorded 13782 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and in response to the rising number of cases, the Karnataka government is looking to increase the allocation of beds for COVID-19 patients in private hospitals. The state government opened a new COVID Care Centre in Bengaluru, which can accommodate 150 people at the Government Ayurveda and Medical College. 

It also decided to impose tougher restrictions in Bengaluru by extending the night curfew in the state till May 4 and introducing a weekend curfew. Schools, colleges, cinema halls, religious places and restaurants (for dining) will be closed for the public for the next two weeks. 

But residents in Bengaluru are still flooding helplines with panicked requests for help and volunteer teams say that there should be steps taken to address them. “Re-starting the control room like in 2020 will definitely help us keep up with the requests,” says Nagenderan.  

Read: Bengaluru COVID-19: From labs, beds to ambulances, a list of numbers you may need

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