Srinivas B.V. barely sleeps at night. His phone rings 24 hours a day with cries of help from Indians begging for oxygen supplies, ventilators, hospital beds – whatever he can provide.
“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.
Earlier this week, Srinivas and his team rushed an oxygen cylinder to the New Delhi home of a woman whose father was suffering from Covid-19. Despite their best efforts, the man died later that night. Scared, alone and Covid-positive herself, the woman had nobody to help cremate her father’s body – so Srinivas’s team arranged an ambulance and facilitated the cremation.
India's Covid-19 crisis, in pictures
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.
India’s second wave has consumed the country. In the past 30 days alone, India has reported more than 8.3 million new cases, including 412,262 on Thursday, its highest ever daily surge.
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.
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When India went under a strict months-long lockdown in March last year, the youth wing set up a war room in New Delhi, coordinating with other branches around the country to provide food and transportation to hundreds of stranded migrant workers.
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.
He and many others in India are frustrated with the central government, led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for what they view as a slow and inadequate response to the second wave. Delhi has been plagued by severe oxygen shortages for weeks. Despite the government’s measures, which include bringing in oxygen from other states via railway, Delhi authorities say it’s still not enough.
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 tweet was later deleted, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade apologized to India for the post, saying it had been issued in error, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand.
“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.
The government has also faced criticism for an apparent delay in distributing foreign aid sent by dozens of countries, which began arriving in India last week. Health officials acknowledged it had taken seven days to draw up guidelines on how to allocate and distribute the aid, but said four million items had already been delivered to hospitals in various states.
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