‘I am not extraordinary’

Entrepreneur Radhika Shastry speaks about her custom-made auto rickshaw ambulances
Owner of Café Diem in Coonoor, Nilgiris Radhika Shastry who is known for her hospitality now has another feather in her cap. While the grim situation was unfolding in her small town in Nilgiris, she was not one to take a back seat. ‘The terrain here is such that a ten-minute walk uphill was challenging for an unwell person’, she mentioned, adding that ‘the underprivileged in her town were carrying those who needed medical attention in bedsheets tied to sticks as ambulances were unavailable to reach people living in interior parts and plantation areas.’ Shastry carried out a crowdfunded project and donated six auto rickshaw ambulances to six organisations. Each one made at a cost of Rs 3.5 lakh. She was also instrumental in bringing an oxygen plant for her town and is now working on creating a Pediatric hospital and in future, hopefully a blood bank and a training centre for paramedic staff. She says she is not an ‘extra-ordinary citizen or a social worker, but a human being with a conscience’, but we would say, she is a shero.

How was the second wave of Covid in Nilgiris? How bad was it compared to rest of the country?
Nilgiris was as bad as the rest of the country. But our situation was a little worse as we did not have a robust medical infrastructure. In terms of following Covid protocols, the administration was doing a good job.

Could you mention a few drawbacks in public infrastructure that people in your town faced?
One was acute shortage of oxygen which was true for many towns and cities. In Nilgiris, we did not even have an oxygen plant. Oxygen cylinders had to be sent to Coimbatore to be refilled and brought back. It would take about 20-22 hours for that entire process. If the cylinders were sent in the morning it would reach the next day. So that was a huge challenge. And all hospitalisation initially happened in Coimbatore, we did not have the infrastructure to handle the patients, tests were also done in Coimbatore or it had to be sent to Ooty. The test reports were taking too long as well.

Being an entrepreneur; you seem to be pretty well aware of what is going on. Have you always taken interest in social issues?
I think the whole world was informed as far as the Corona situation was concerned. So was I. Media houses were putting out facts and figures. Most of us had nothing much to do during lockdown, in any case my café was closed. That is how I got drawn into it.

When did you decide that you needed to do something regarding Covid relief?
There was shortage of ambulances, oxygen cylinders, even non-covid patients were not able to reach hospitals, especially the poor people. Public transport had come to a halt due to a complete lockdown. When you live in the hills, even if the hospital is just a ten-minute walk, for somebody who is unwell it is a challenge. People were just sitting at home and bearing whatever illness they were having, just because of lack of transport and the hospital infrastructure being overwhelmed. People were being carried in bed sheets tied to sticks to the nearest point where an ambulance could reach them. There was also a 48 hour wait period to get an ambulance.

What made you come up with auto rickshaw ambulances?
I was looking for an opportunity to see how this could be resolved. That is when I saw a photograph of a small ambulance made out of a battery-operated rickshaw, it was a fragile version of an ambulance. That prompted me to think about it.

Did it bother you that you needed to get to the engineering and design side of it? Did that not hold you back?
No. Not at all. I was very confident. Prior this, I had got a huge oxygen plant for the district. I was confident I would be able to do it. Once the resources start coming in, you automatically get the confidence to push through.

Can you talk about the auto rickshaw ambulance and its features?
The auto-rickshaw ambulance is a 470 CC, diesel operated Bajaj product. I had to get it fabricated from Jabalpur. The vehicle has a stretcher and seats for attendants. It has an oxygen cylinder, drip stand, first aid box, fire extinguisher and a fan. It is roomy inside but not like a cardiac ambulance. It is a basic ambulance that can move people who are unwell from one point to the other. The vehicles are running in six different organisations picking up patients from interior areas. The government hospital here is spread across 14 acres, to take a patient from out-patient to CT scan, they need the vehicle.

An ambulance is a primary requirement for any geographic location in such times. Currently what else do you think your town needs?
Yes. There is no pediatric unit in the entire Nilgiris. We are working on one to be created. There is always this threat looming that children might get affected. Nobody knows whether it will happen or not. But one needs to be prepared for it. It is myopic to just think about Covid, one has to think beyond the pandemic and create infrastructure that will serve the society for many years to come.

The patrons in your café came around and helped fund the project. Now looking back, did it surprise you?
It did not surprise me. Almost every individual in this country or around the world wanted to help and reach out during those tough times. We were all watching people struggle. Everybody wants to do their bit but it is all about trust and faith, if you are going to make a donation, you want to be sure that it goes to the right people and right cause.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned about your work and contribution in his Maan ki Baat speech…
Well, I did not know that the Maan Ki Baat feature was going to happen. It was a surprise. Initially, the Prime Minister’s Office asked for write ups and more information about the project. It was sent through the District Collector’s office, we thought they wanted to replicate it in some other part of the country. I got the message regarding the mention of the auto rickshaw ambulance on the eve of the programme.

You have been an extraordinary citizen…
I am not an extraordinary citizen, I just did what I suddenly felt like doing. There would be millions of people who would have done it. People have been calling me a social activist or a social worker; I am none of that. I am just a person with a conscience. I do not have any labels attached. Neither am I interested in joining politics. I just got picked up because the product itself was so different. Everybody has done their little bit during the pandemic. Whether they gave food grains or fruits or vegetables, everything was important. I was just another cog in the wheel. But yes, I feel I have put my time to great use. You do not get such opportunities over and over again. I just chose to help and benefit others.

Getting through the Corona experience, what has changed?
I learnt that we had become unnecessarily materialistic in our life. Just collecting things and buying new things without realising. The pandemic showed a mirror and said, look, you do not need any of that. If you can last for two years without buying all these unnecessary things that we do buy, you can lead a better life at that. Everybody has become more austere, more cautious, thinking twice about buying something. Everybody has become close to their families, friends and relationships have become more precious than ever before.

– By Naomi N

Dignity to the Dead

The second wave of Covid resulted in an unprecedented and horrifying situation in most metro cities in India – people were dying in great numbers from Covid, with no one to bury them. If not for the individuals and groups who took upon themselves the task of giving the dead a dignified burial, there could very well be hospitals overflowing with bodies.

One such person was Gowtham Hebbar Gurumurthy from Bengaluru. The aeronautical engineer was part of the quick response team of the Civil Defence Volunteer Corps in Karnataka, run by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and had received training in disaster management. During the second wave of Covid, Gowtham was assigned the task of burying unattended bodies. At one point, he and his team were conducting mass burials, up to 20 bodies at a time, he recalls. “At times the family couldn’t attend the burial because they themselves were unwell, at times they didn’t want to, as everyone was worried about infection. They would ask us to take care of it, saying they would pay for it. We would make sure that we performed the last rites according to the beliefs of each person, though. We arranged coffins and burial for Christians, cremation or burial for Hindus according to the family’s wishes etc.”

Gowtham did it all alongside his job as senior manager of operations in a private company and says it wasn’t easy at all doing both. “My family and colleagues were all worried about me, but we took all precautions to make sure we remained healthy.”

Gowtham and team were also helping migrant labourers procure E-passes, and train tickets to go home parallelly. Ask him what motivated him to take up the dreaded task of burying bodies and he says. “It wasn’t just me on the ground. Our quick response team had 32 members, all of who are ready to take on any emergency still. There were also many other civilians working day and night as volunteers, directly or indirectly. They are the real warriors.”

For his services, Gowtham was awarded the honorary President’s gallantry medal, the President’s Meritorious Service medal as well as the Chief Minister’s gold medal for Meritorious Service. He continues to be part of the Civil Defence team and had worked during the Bengaluru rains, most recently.

– By Asha Prakash

The Power of One

One of the major barriers to patients getting proper treatment during peak Covid times was not just the unavailability of hospital beds, but the lack of proper information as well. Official helplines were often constantly busy and citizens were left frantically calling up hospital after hospital for information, losing precious time. In the midst of the chaos, there was a massive network of volunteers – The Covid Volunteer Network (CoVolNet) – which worked 24/7 disseminating correct information on the availability of ICU beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders and more. Spread across 30 Whatsapp groups, one for every State in the country, CoVolNet saved countless lives, helping people in various ways. All of it was spearheaded by one person, a Malayali researcher from Trivandrum, named Bharath Govind. What gave this network the advantage was that the core group of 15,000 volunteers had already been mobilised right during the 2018 floods in Kerala. When Covid hit, the same group instantly set to work, like a well-oiled machine.

Bharath, who had secured a JRF, decided to volunteer during the floods, and continued to stay back in Kerala for the next three years, postponing his research. “I started on Covid work by January 2020 itself when the first case was detected in Kerala, in a semi-official capacity, as the convenor of the inter-agency group of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. Every district is supposed to have one. That helped a lot, as I had access to bureaucrats, politicians and doctors, all of whom were part of our groups, which helped get things done faster. I gave my personal phone number as the helpline number, and ever since it has not stopped ringing.”

The group was initially formed in Kerala, with the help of a friend of his Aishwarya Chandran, but it soon spread across the country. “During the second wave in April 2021, we were handling hundreds of calls a day. We were also providing psychosocial support to patients and their families, providing transport, delivering food, arranging cremations and more. Combating the spread of wrong information was an equally hard challenge,” he recalls.

Despite the aura of fear surrounding Covid, thousands of students and youngsters came forward, ready to pitch in for data entry, at call centres and more, he says. “Everyone was going through a financial crisis but it was a true community movement. Even corporates used their CSR funds to provide masks and PPE kits on an emergency basis.”

He recalls a comment from the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) Executive Director Anil Sinha IAS. “Sinha was also a UNDP advisor and he told me that he had not seen this kind of a community involvement anywhere in the world.”

CoVolNet is still getting requests every day, and they are ready to rise to the occasion in the event of another wave. Meanwhile, Bharath finally started off on his PhD but says he is ready for any emergency situation.

– By Asha Prakash

Helping Hands

Roopamouli Mysore of Sahaya Hastha has been running on her feet non-stop from the time the pandemic hit the world

Sahaya Hastha literally means the helping hands and that is exactly what Roopamouli Mysore, Mrs Global International, has been working on every single day. She says her work will continue till as long as she can.

“We have been working towards appeasing hunger and building immunity among daily wage workers, migrants and weaker sections of the society in Bengaluru. The most vulnerable lot of them, the pregnant and breast feeding mothers, especially from the migrant community were the most compromised in terms of health and immunity, so keeping them in mind we created UNICEF kits that included nutrition kit, hygiene kit, energy bars and fortified milk powder, that we distributed to the pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, mothers with less than six months babies and also spread awareness on how to keep themselves protected during the tough Covid times,” shares Roopa.

“Every week we lifted over three tons of vegetables from the farmers directly and distributed them freely among the needy communities. India has a large farming population who were also in distress due to the lockdown as the buyers end was restricted. So, to enable farmers sustain themselves we bought vegetables directly from them through FPOs and distributed to the impoverished people in need, thus helping both the communities. Being an agricultural graduate, helping these farmers was a calling for me. We distributed vegetables thrice a week among many communities. Besides, the food supply, we also distributed 3000 personal hygiene kits among the migrant communities,” she says.

Roopa who did not just facilitate all of it, but made she was on ground every morning, and was hands on in making the two ends meet, adds, “We have also gone around to many remote areas and helped these rural women maintain personal hygiene by distributing hygiene kits that included toothbrush, paste, hair oil, detergent soaps, toilet soap and sanitary pads. Lockdown has been difficult for availing medical treatment as we all know. We have facilitated patients, by taking them to the hospital and also sourcing and delivering medicines and other essentials. Daily 3000 meals were distributed among migrant communities were distributed all over Bangalore in the remote areas, and even outskirts like Chandapura, Dasarahalli, Byappanahalli and other such places. We used to collect food by 12.30 pm and then go to Chandapura, and then to Electronic City, Dasarahalli, Neelasandra, Magadi Road. We also distributed more than 2000 dry Ration kits to migrants which included groceries to sustain for over a month to manage hunger sustainably. We have also facilitated in helping numerous migrant workers get back home by train by coordinating the train timings, getting them registered on Seva Sindhu, helping them fill forms and assisting them in getting to the mustering or processing centre. The focus was on workers traveling to Bihar and Assam.”

They continue to work towards Covid awareness sessions at migrant holds. “We have started work at the ward level. We have joined BBMP in the ward level as a volunteer to help them in Covid control and test drive. By the Covid second wave started, we continued with the distribution of first line treatment and medicine kits to the needy Covid positive patients. What we have realised is due to unaffordability, when food can be unaffordable, medicine can be a luxury, hence this section of people take only paracetamol and the disease gets aggravated. We made a kit which covers the first line of treatment as prescribed individually by Medical Officer from BBMP including masks and sanitisers. We have a Green army Sahaya hastha with citizen volunteers from April26th and Belur Sahayahastha since May this year. We also distributed Oxy meter and Thermometer banks too which is crucial in preventing escalation of the disease on time. We distributed 2000 meals everyday for lunch and dinner. We helped Covid care centre at Doddaballapur Taluk, Isthur by organising an ambulance and taking care of the logistics.”

Roopa has also distributed Covid medikits, for home isolation patients at Doddaballapur Taluk and also hygiene kits including masks, soaps, Sanitiser and sanitary napkins. “We organised 60 cylinders for Covid positive patients and helped them set up oxygen treatment at home,” adds Roopa, with an angelic smile.

– By Namita Gupta

Playing The Family Man

Dr R S Gopakumar conducted final rites of Covid patients when families stayed away. A scene which would define the horrors of Covid was the photograph of a large number of pyres burning together. In the battle against Covid, a peaceful send off to a loved one was almost impossible. Cremation and burial became a daunting task in the last two years. There were incidents of doctors and crematorium workers being attacked inside crematoriums. Dr R S Gopakumar, Health Officer of Thiruvananthapuram Corporation is a familiar name in Kerala. He gained recognition after he took over the task no one would willingly take during the Nipah outbreak in 2018: disposing dead bodies in a proper manner. He performed the final rites for many of the Nipah victims when the families stayed away. He convinced the locals to allow burials and cremations to take place peacefully, erasing fears of the virus from their minds. In the process he also became a pallbearer. He again stepped up to do another brave act: the culling of thousands of birds when bird flu was reported in the State. He was the go-to person shedding clarity on how to handle bodies of Covid deaths and handing out instructions on giving a dignified burial. At times, his personal experiences give him a shudder, ‘I am seen as Dr Death’, he said. A character in the Malayalam film ‘Virus’ was based on him. Some may say he is sucked into the activity, ‘In February 2020, I gave a description to the Mayor about how Covid will turn out. I said over 25 lakh people would be affected and it was like the Spanish flu. He could not believe it. They thought I had gone crazy after researching and studying about viral outbreaks. I got exhausted explaining the gravity of the situation and left it. Weeks later when the lockdown was announced, they were shocked.’ Dr Gopakumar’s efforts and contributions came at personal losses, but if not for him, the human story behind Nipah and Covid would have never been told.

How do you look back at the past few years with regard to Nipah and Covid?
It has been a tough time. But our system was well efficient to cope with it. Former Health Minister K K Shailaja led the battles. The government stood with officers of all ranks- top rung and lower rung, that is one way Kerala stands out. During Nipah outbreak, the Government worked as a whole machinery. That machinery did not differentiate between ruling or opposition parties, everyone was united in the fight. We were confident in fighting Covid, because of the experiences we had during the time of Nipah outbreak. We eliminated the virus after 21 days without sleep and completely exhausted. In a month, we produced the result better than how many other countries handled Nipah outbreak.

You were called to ensure peaceful cremations and burials of Nipah victims, but you also conducted the final rites…
There was a local situation when Nipah virus claimed a life in Kozhikode district. People refused to allow cremation at the crematorium. According to the Kerala government 1994 Municipal Act, the Corporation Secretary is bound to dispose dead bodies in a proper manner. This task was delegated to me when nobody was willing. Despite taking all personal protection measures, I could still contract the disease, but I stepped up. I couldn’t ask many people to jump into it, I asked those willing to join me as volunteers to do so after understanding the dangers of it. In some cases, the relatives were not willing to be part of it, and I did the final rites. During Nipah outbreak, I laid to rest 12 victims, out of which eight were confirmed positive cases and four were suspected Nipah cases. After this, when Bird flu struck in 2020, I was part of the team to contain its spread. Close of 50,000 birds were culled. It was a heart-breaking incident in my life. But we had to do it. When covid started I began training and forming teams for body management enforcement squad. I was part of putting a handbook together with guidelines for body disposal. Today, it is a reference book for issuing Government Orders. I was present for 140 covid burials/cremations, after which the teams were equipped to manage on their own. I had also gone to neighbouring areas in Kozhikode to train many. In Kozhikode, till I was there, the death toll had crossed 1,000.

Was there any particular Covid victim’s death that moved you?
There was a four-month-old baby. She was the fourth Covid death in Kerala and youngest from the State to die. The baby had a congenital heart disease. Not just me, my entire team was deeply moved while burying her. The child was taken to three hospitals for treatment and her father who was also present in a Personal Protective Equipment watching the final rites from a distance. It was sad to see him.

Being a frontline worker, how did you take care of your health?
In 2018, I was trained to handle burials from Dr Rima Sahay of National Institute of Virology. She had been part of Ebola victim burials. I have had mental health collapses, but she has helped me cope with it through her learning. Our Teacher (former Health Minister K K Shailaja) clearly understood how stressed out I was and was a pillar of support.

Having conducted so many cremations and burials, what do you make of your experiences?
When Covid started I used to get calls from all parts of Kerala. There were about doubts on body management. Some would say it was their first time and I would analyse and explain things over video calls. There are moments I thought if people were calling me when deaths happened. Am I Dr Death? I would question myself. I am a human too, I get depressed too. I went through personal losses, yes, I have got gains, I am not denying that. But all this came at great sacrifices. Each day, I give 14 hours to official matters. I gave my family time to work and faced problems. The only thought that keeps me going is the question, ‘What have I done while on earth’, and I hope all that I contribute, would compensate. I hope to have a peaceful death where I wouldn’t be bedridden. I have no other expectations from this.

Is the battle against Covid over?
It is not far from being over. We are midway, we still have to cross a long journey. In a few years, Covid will be a normal disease like flu or common cold.

– By Naomi N.

Non-profit initiative saves 500 lives in the second wave

Varindar Bobby Singh is the brainchild of the non-profit initiative project called ‘Oxygen Free Air for all’. During the Covid second wave peak in May 2021, Bobby started this project to provide oxygen concentrators for free usage for 7 days to the patients. “In 34 days we were able to save 500 + lives in Chennai alone. This project itself was quite across Coimbatore, Erode, Madurai, Ranipet, Vizag, Bengaluru, and Tirupur we were able to spread the fire and inspire. We were the first ones in Chennai to start this concept of giving the oxygen concentrators to a patient for free of cost and home-delivered at their place. We have made 10,000 km of delivery volunteers moving around and volunteers picked up some 10,000 + calls and we have saved 6.5 core worth of money for these patients. We had about 43 volunteers who are just college students and we started with 6 machines.”

Bobby recalls, “I got a call first from my friend that his Dad was hospitalised and doctors are ready to discharge him if he had oxygen concentrators at home. I knew the machine costed Rs. 70,000, so I got a machine for his Dad. His words ‘I need the machine urgently, it should reach home and once I get the machine my Dad will get discharged and the bed will be given to another person’ got me thinking. The bed and oxygen were the primary shortages so that got me rolling.”

“I was funding, Girish was into logistics, innovation and process were taken care of by Solomon, and we made multi-line numbers. I got two doctors on board, Kaushal was taking care of the documentation team and our delivery team expanded. At the same time, fear of Covid and infection was always there. I’m happy that all my volunteers are safe and all our 500 patients are still in touch with us. We are a family now. Our work was recognized by the Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi and our team received a project closure report and certificate of appreciation at the Rippon building,” he adds.

-By Vinitha Venkatesha