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‘Everyone Knows Someone who is Sick or has Died’: On the COVID Frontline with India’s Poorest of the Poor

Former journalist Sean Duggan, who has supported the Calcutta Rescue charity for 30 years and is coordinating its communications during the pandemic, provides an insight into the impact of the Coronavirus on those who were already amongst the most vulnerable

A Calcutta Rescue community health worker in action. Photo: Calcutta Rescue

‘Everyone Knows Someone who is Sick or has Died’On the COVID Frontline with India’s Poorest of the Poor

Former journalist Sean Duggan, who has supported the Calcutta Rescue charity for 30 years and is coordinating its communications during the pandemic, provides an insight into the impact of the Coronavirus on those who were already amongst the most vulnerable

After a dozen years in the Army and two decades as a journalist, I like to think I am relatively hardened to stressful situations. But watching the WhatsApp feed on my phone from Calcutta Rescue’s quick response team in recent weeks as it battled to find oxygen, drugs and beds for people with severe COVID-19 in Kolkata has been nothing short of traumatic. 

The team was set up in April, just before the second, much more deadly, wave of the Coronavirus hit the city. The world watched in horror as the virus engulfed India’s capital, Delhi, and it was clear to the charity – which provides primary healthcare and education to thousands of Kolkata’s most deprived people – that, once it took hold there, the city’s already overstretched health facilities would quickly be overwhelmed. 

To give its beneficiaries and 150 staff members the best chance of survival should they fall seriously ill as the number of cases started to climb, Calcutta Rescue created a team of managers standing by to call every possible contact at pharmacies and hospitals to find whatever was needed.

It also armed its 12 community health workers with thermal thermometers and pulse oximeters (to measure blood-oxygen levels) so that they could identify people showing signs of COVID-19 in the slums, get them tested, and then plug them in to the charity’s medical team to give them advice and support. 

Calcutta Rescue staff distribute food. Photo: Calcutta Rescue

And it put together an emergency kit with an oxygen cylinder, dexamethasone, budesonide inhaler, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other tools which could be rushed out to a patient in crisis at any time of the day or night. 

When the quick response team is alerted that someone’s oxygen level has fallen and they need to be admitted to hospital, they work frenetically, sharing on WhatsApp who they have contacted and what response they have got. Again and again, they are knocked-back, and promising leads almost always fizzle-out because the information is wrong or out-of-date. 

Minutes turn into hours and all the time they know that a desperately-ill person is out there somewhere fighting for every breath. When the team finally manages to get someone admitted to hospital, they are often discharged as soon as their oxygen saturation levels improve. 

When their oxygen level crashes again, as it often does, they are back home, far from the support and life-saving equipment. Once again, the team battles to get them admitted somewhere – but too many times it is too late and they die, often of a heart attack.

Widespread Loss

The numbers of people dying in Kolkata are difficult to comprehend – partly because they are on a scale far beyond anything most of us have ever experienced, and partly because the official statistics are estimated to be at least five times lower than the real ones. 

Among Calcutta Rescue’s own board of trustees of just nine people, three have caught the Coronavirus in the past month, one has died, one has lost a son in his 20s, and one has lost her husband. More than half of the NGO’s senior management team are mourning the loss of at least one close relative – a mother, brother, cousin or uncle.

As the charity’s chief executive, Jaydeep Chakraborty, says: “Everyone in Kolkata now knows a friend or family member who is sick or has died.”

This loss is placing a huge psychological strain on staff, but they try not to let this impact their mission to help others. On the WhatsApp feed, one of the managers shares the news that her elder brother has just died. Five minutes later she is back on the case, hunting for an elusive hospital bed for a severely ill patient.

Almost all of the charity’s frontline staff have received at least one vaccination, giving them some measure of immunity. But their families have not, and the fear of passing on the virus to them when they come home from work is a constant worry. 

In a country of 1.4 billion people, the Indian Government’s decision to invite everyone over 18 to come forward for a jab – despite having only a tiny fraction of the necessary vaccines – has made it almost impossible for those most at risk to get vaccinated now. This includes a large number of elderly people who passed-up the opportunity to get vaccinated earlier in the year because they were worried about side-effects and were mistakenly led to believe that India had seen-off the virus. Sadly, many of those now dying fall into that category. 

Calcutta Rescue – which started its work with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata in 1979 – is currently applying to become a vaccination centre in the hope that, using its deep connections in dozens of slums, it can encourage and assist the most vulnerable to get inoculated. 

But it is not just those with COVID-19 who need help.

The city is back in lockdown which means that people in the slums can’t earn the money they need to find each day to feed their families. Research conducted by Calcutta Rescue shows that two-thirds of slum residents were already experiencing severe food insecurity following last year’s Coronavirus lockdown – one of the world’s most severe. Many had lost their jobs or were being paid less for their efforts so Calcutta Rescue is currently delivering food parcels to hundreds of families. 

The charity’s support groups around the world are working to raise money to fund the charity’s COVID relief efforts. A shipment of PPE has just arrived from the US and a consignment of oxygen concentrators and pulse oximeters was despatched from the UK last week. 

You can find out more about the Calcutta Rescue Fund here and, if you would like to support its work at this critical time, you can make a donation here. Barclays has pledged to match-fund all donations, which means your money will go twice as far in Kolkata. 

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