Haven’t seen my family in months: Ambulance drivers on frontlines of COVID-19 battle

In the middle of a pandemic, ambulance drivers have also had to learn how to conduct the last rites for COVID-19 victims.
Ambulance drivers
Ambulance drivers

Over the past two months, with COVID-19 cases reaching new heights every day in Chennai, Mohammed Ishaq has been busy plying patients to hospitals and ferrying bodies of the deceased to their final resting ground.

As TNM spoke to Mohammed, who is a member of the Uravugal Trust, he was on the way to a cemetery to bury the body of a COVID-19 patient. On an average Mohammed receives at least 200 calls with such requests, routed to him by the Trust. Chennai-based Uravugal Trust was started by a young group of friends, led by Khaalid Ahamed, in the year 2017. According to their website, about 80% of their volunteers are college students from Chennai.

“I’ve been doing this even before coronavirus. We take care of the unclaimed bodies. Now with COVID-19 deaths increasing, I take up more numbers of COVID-19 requests,” he says. 

In the past four months, the lives of ambulance drivers have changed. On the frontlines of the battle against the dreaded disease, their work now also involves conducting the last rites of COVID-19 victims.

“I used to make one or two trips per day in the beginning, by May I was doing three to four trips. Now, I mostly take dead bodies from the hospital to the crematorium. My phone keeps ringing throughout the day. Yesterday, I had shifted three patients before 4 pm,” Ameer Jahn, an ambulance driver in Bengaluru, tells TNM.

Ameer worked as a bus driver before the pandemic but had no work after the lockdown was imposed, with public transport taken off the roads. 

“I saw an announcement that the government needed ambulance drivers and I signed up. It has been three months now, I’ve been working continuously and the government is paying my salary of Rs 25,000 per month. I don’t know how long this will go on, but I am focused on my day,” he says.

Personal sacrifices

After working long hours, many of the drivers return to an empty home as they have decided to live away from their families to protect them from getting infected. Ameer is from Chintamani in Chikkaballapura district and is currently living in a hostel on Magadi Road in Bengaluru. His village has asked him to stay away from his family — he has a wife and two children — fearful that he might transmit the virus to them.

“I haven’t seen my family for the last three months. I told them that someone has to come forward and do the needed work of transporting patients and dead bodies. I said god will be with me if I’m doing something good and I signed up for this. I didn’t have any work since the lockdown was imposed and it was a struggle to earn for my family,” Ameer says.

In Hyderabad’s city limits, there are around 60 ambulances designated for coronavirus duty. Each driver works in a 12-hour shift, either from 8 am to 8 pm or from 8 pm to 8 am. Srinivas Reddy, a 108 ambulance driver and a member of the Telangana 108 ambulance drivers union, tells TNM that the drivers working under the Telangana Health department have to take up ambulance duty for coronavirus patients on a rotational basis.

“While a regular ambulance driver makes about five to six trips in a day, trips for coronavirus ambulances are comparatively lesser. We go to a designated area upon being informed by the health official and from there, we pick up all the coronavirus patients at once as a group, taking all the precautionary measures such as wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits, sanitisation, etc,” Reddy explains.

Safety and stigma

The vehicles designated for coronavirus duty are regularly sanitised and PPE kits are provided, say the drivers. 

Sumesh, an ambulance driver on COVID-19 duty in Thiruvananthapuram, takes about six to seven cases a day. For every case he takes – either to drop from hospital to home or else pick up from home to go to the hospital – Sumesh uses a fresh set of PPE kit and N95 mask, provided by the Disha Helpline Service. “Whether the case is positive or negative, we will be changing the protective wears after each pickup or drop. The ambulance is also fumigated for an hour, after every case. After this, the doors are left open for 30 to 40 minutes before the ambulance is used again,” Sumesh says. 

Every few days – once in a week or two at the most – samples of ambulance drivers are tested. “I don’t stay away from home. What I do instead is work continuously for seven days so that I wouldn’t have to go home every day and can avoid contact with my baby. After this, I take the test and then go home,” Sumesh says. Ameer, too, says that the BBMP tests drivers every week.

Going out in their PPE kits, ambulance drivers often face prejudiced behaviour. Sumesh has received both negative and positive reactions.

“Sometimes shops refuse to even sell you a bottle of water. But then some others are so grateful for the work we do that if we ask for water, they insist we take some fruit too with us,” Sumesh says.

In Hyderabad, Srinivas Reddy says he is living with his family as they cannot afford to stay anywhere else, and added that as soon as he reaches home, they first take a bath outside and then step inside the house. “I have not faced any stigma, as it is my routine job, and the neighborhood already got used to my hospital trips,” Reddy says.

At home, Mohammed has his mother and sister to care about. “My mother worries, although my sister is more encouraging. I wouldn’t blame my mother for worrying though,” he adds. Rightfully so, Mohammed’s line of work is not the easiest. “Usually we’re able to have only breakfast and dinner. There have been days when I survived just on biscuits and water,” he shares.

The job’s only drawback is the delay in salary, Sumesh says. In Kerala, an agency provides drivers for the state’s coronavirus cell. “They deploy about 315 ambulances, out of which 200 run in Kerala. The agency used to pay us on time earlier. But in the last few months, there’s been a delay. The District Medical Officer wrote to them once and they paid the dues then. But after that, there’s again a delay,” Sumesh says.

In Telangana, Reddy says drivers are paid around Rs 10,000 to 13,000 per month. “We have a weekly off with rotational day and night shifts, changing every week. Earlier we used to have offs every 3 days, but from 2019 we get only weekly offs with the same salary scale, which has become hectic. I wish we get more offs and the duty time is reduced to 8 hours, instead of 12 hours,” he says.

Salary is an issue, agrees Noufal, an ambulance driver from Idukki. “We are commoners who depend on our salaries reaching us on time. Except during the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak in the state, we’ve never been paid on time. We always end up being forced to strike before the collector and then the DMO intervenes and gets the agency to pay us,” Noufal says.

He drives one of the Kanivu 108 ambulances deployed by the state government for emergency services. Every day, he gets three to four calls but he can attend only one or two because of the distances involved in taking a patient from one district to another. He too changes his PPE kit, N95 mask and surgical gloves every time he transports a patient. Instead of fumigating the ambulance, it is bleached and washed, and will be next used only after four to five hours. Noufal has not had to carry a deceased COVID-19 patient so far.

He says he has not had any bad experiences with people because of his profession, like the stigma that Sumesh faced.

The last rites

In Chennai, Mohammed receives about five PPEs every time he picks up a COVID-19 body, one for himself and others for the health workers who help him with the burial or cremation.

“We don’t believe in religion, humans are all the same. The person who has died is god. Although, if we get to know that the deceased was Hindu we offer flowers and milk, if Muslim or Christian, we hold a small prayer before the burial,” he shares.

Mohammed, however, is nonchalant when asked about his safety. “Of course, I take all precautions. I work for a minimum of five days a week, then quarantine myself at a lodge before going home. However, I don’t fear for my death. Today I am well and that is all that matters.” 

After a pause, he adds, “You can only imagine the things I’ve seen in these three years of service.”

(With inputs from Prajwal Bhat and Rajeswari Parasa)

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