College students, teachers take burden off COVID-19 patients

A network of online warriors, mostly college students and teachers, have been lighting up the path for patients caught between panic and confusion.

Shresthashree Swain says she does not like to talk about the successes she has met while helping COVID-19 patients but that she could not resist sharing on social media this message she received from a policeman: “You are just like The Florence Nightingale, which I have read in my childhood. I pray before the god may your every wish become successful (sic).”

The message came from someone she has never met: a policeman posted in Khardah, whose entire family, including elderly parents, had tested positive for COVID-19. By the time he called Ms. Swain — a part of the large army of online volunteers belonging to various colleges in West Bengal — seeking help, his mother was already dead while his father’s oxygen level had dipped to 75%.

“I immediately called up Dr. Kazi Gowsas Salam, an assistant superintendent of the Calcutta Medical College, and pleaded with him to admit the father. This was last week. Now the father is better. The rest of the family was guided over the phone by my husband, who is a doctor — they have also recovered,” says Ms. Swain, a scientist posted at the chemistry department of the University of Calcutta.

Late April — when the deadly second wave of COVID-19 began to sweep through the State — saw the emergence of a network of online warriors, mostly college students and teachers who have been lighting up the path for patients caught between panic and confusion.

“Much of our time these days is spent verifying phone numbers — of oxygen suppliers, of hospitals. Our job is to give specific leads to patients and spare them the trouble of going through a long list of phone numbers,” says Sailen Hazra, a BA student at the Shyampur Siddheswari Mahavidyalaya, a rural college in the district of Howrah.

“I have seen quite a few relatives dying of COVID-19. I couldn’t do much for them other than shed tears on their death. It comforts me now to help patients in need,” says Mr. Hazra.

These students and teachers — connected among themselves over WhatsApp and with prospective help-seekers over social media — have divided themselves into four categories of support: hospital beds, oxygen, blood donation and ambulance services. The aim is to see that a patient gets help as quickly as possible.

“Initially I was merely sharing and forwarding phone numbers. But once I realised how helpless people were in the face of such a huge crisis, I started verifying the leads myself, calling up hospitals, oxygen suppliers, plasma donors,” says Sayanti Kar, a lecturer at Kolkata’s Asutosh College.

The many challenges

“The challenges can be frustrating. A verified number can turn out to be switched off after some time, the oxygen supplier you just spoke to can run out of stock in a few hours, hospitals may not answer calls, but we don’t easily give up,” says Dr. Kar.

Somasree Samanta, a first-year M.Sc. student of environmental science at the University, who is at the moment in her hometown Durgapur due to the pandemic, recalls her very first day as an active volunteer: “This was on May 1. At 1.20 in the night I got to know of a patient, 82 years old, whose oxygen level had dipped below 70. I began making calls, and by 3 a.m. I managed to have an oxygen cylinder reached to his place. But I was warned that the cylinder wouldn’t last beyond 8 a.m., so I started making calls again, this time to hospitals. Fortunately, the patient found a bed well in time.”

Ms. Samanta adds: “What we are witnessing is a tug of war between faith and fate. This is the time to reinforce our faith in humanity. Faith must win.”


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