“If we miss a call, we call back and ask what we can do,” said Srinivas, who leads the youth wing of the opposition Indian National Congress party.
Srinivas’ phone rang as he spoke to CNN. It was Alok Kumar, a college professor who was frantically searching for oxygen for his Covid-positive three-year-old son. The team rushes out the door again, an oxygen cylinder in the back of the car.
Experts and patients say India’s worst-hit cities feel like warzones. Hospitals are so full that patients share beds or lie on the floor. Many die before they see a doctor. Communities and volunteers have set up makeshift clinics — rows of plastic chairs and mattresses under tarpaulins, where patients lie gasping for air in the sweltering heat.
To meet the surge in demand, Srinivas and his team are among 1,000 members of the youth wing working day and night around the country, including 100 in the capital New Delhi.
“(People) are not having access to oxygen, nor hospital beds,” said Manu Jain, the national convenor of the youth wing. “No infrastructure is there. The government is nowhere. The system has completely collapsed, so people are on their own right now.”
The Indian government issued a strong denial of any delay in distributing aid and medical supplies on Tuesday evening, saying nearly 4 million donated items, spanning 24 categories, have already been distributed to 38 health care facilities across the country.
The social media network
That nationwide network of volunteers is now being used to respond to the second wave.
In their war room, members scour WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook for pleas for help. Social media users tag Srinivas and the youth wing, or use an “SOS” hashtag to get their attention.
The team receives up to 15,000 requests for help a day, said Jain. The team prioritizes the most urgent messages and checks supplies to match their needs.
It’s impossible to find any oxygen or medicine in Delhi, so the youth wing contacts other states with lower caseloads and more resources. Volunteers in those states coordinate with local vendors to send supplies to Delhi.
The team receives several dozen cylinders a day from various states, which they rush to patients. But demand is so high that once the patient has stabilized — typically in a few days — the team retrieves the oxygen cylinder, and either takes it to the next patient or sends it back for refilling out-of-state.
The 100 youth wing members in Delhi also go from hospital to hospital to check for available beds, and coordinate directly with medical staff and district officials to admit patients. They prepare food to distribute in front of hospitals, and deliver medicine to people isolating at home. They also fly in volunteer plasma donors from other parts of the country, for families hoping plasma therapy can save their loved ones.
The team also often helps perform cremations, when the victim’s family members are in other states or countries, or are battling infection themselves.
Their work brings critical relief to desperate families who feel they have run out of options.
Kumar, the father of the three-year-old boy, said his son’s condition had deteriorated in the past week. As his fever rose, so did his need for oxygen.
“I found (Srinivas’) number on the Internet,” said Kumar, calling the team efforts “a service to mankind.”
As he spoke to CNN, his son lay at home in bed, bundled under covers with an pulse oximeter clipped to his toe. He breathed shallowly through an oxygen mask, each inhale a quiet wet rattle.
‘People are dying every second’
But the work takes a toll on the volunteers and organizers. For every person they respond to, there are hundreds more they cannot.
“Every day, I’m getting 2,000 requests for oxygen, and we are not able to fulfill them,” said Jain. “We can’t help everyone because people are dying every second.”
Srinivas is haunted by the memory of one family that lost three members in one week. He had spoken to a patient waiting to be admitted to hospital, who died “due to lack of treatment at the right time.” The patient’s mother had died just two days previously, and his brother two days before that.
Srinivas said his mother, based in Karnataka state, calls him three times a day — all of his family members are worried about how much he is going out and moving between infected households.
Srinivas’ team made national headlines last week, when the New Zealand High Commission in India tweeted a request for oxygen to the youth wing, using their SOS hashtag. Many pointed to the fact that a foreign body was appealing to a country’s opposition party as evidence of the central government’s inaction.
“The government was not ready” for the outbreak, said Srinivas, adding that central authorities “has not taken (coronavirus) seriously.”
In response to the worsening crisis and rising criticism, the central government stepped up its emergency measures this week, installing “high capacity” medical oxygen plants in two New Delhi hospitals and approving plans to install 500 more in the next three months. On Wednesday, the country’s regulators approved an antibody cocktail to treat Covid for emergency use.
But these measures — foreign aid and oxygen plants in hospitals — are of no help for people who can’t even get a hospital bed, and die in ambulances or at home waiting to be admitted.
For the families of these patients, Srinivas’ team and their volunteers are a last resort.
“I feel very sad to have seen too many deaths in front of my eyes,” Srinivas said.
“I cry regularly at night, especially when you remember children who have lost both parents. What will their future be?”