On Sunday, Maria Mehra, a 56-year-old COVID-19 patient, was gasping for breath at her home in Mumbai. Her oxygen level had dropped to 76 and she needed immediate hospitalisation. But there were no beds available, given the record number of infections across the metropolis over the past several weeks. Her desperate family tried frantically to arrange a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder for her but couldn’t find one until Maria’s brother-in-law Jackson Quadras, 47, reached out to Shahnawaz Shahalam Sheikh.
Sheikh provided them with an oxygen cylinder around midnight. Hours later, Quadras secured a hospital bed in Malad, a suburb in north Mumbai, for Maria but remains thankful to Sheikh whose timely intervention helped her. “Shahnawaz bhai (brother) is everything for us. He saved the life of my sister-in-law,” Jackson told Al Jazeera.
Sheikh, 32, is running a “COVID war room” in Mumbai to help people with oxygen cylinders as hospitals across India run out of the life-saving gas crucial for severe COVID-19 patients with hypoxaemia – when oxygen levels in the blood are too low. In May last year, the pregnant cousin of one of Sheikh’s friends died at the gates of a hospital because she could not get admitted on time. The incident moved Sheikh, who decided to spend all his savings to buy 30 oxygen cylinders to help people suffering from the virus.
“My friend lost her cousin because hospitals were overburdened with COVID patients. I decided to provide critically ill patients with oxygen cylinders until they are admitted to any hospital,” he told Al Jazeera over the telephone. But the demand for oxygen kept growing and Sheikh felt 30 cylinders were not enough. In June last year, he sold his SUV to buy 170 more. In the second COVID-19 wave that swept India this month, Sheikh says his team has helped more than 600 people with oxygen cylinders.
“On a daily basis, we get hundreds of calls for help. Sometimes we are able to help and sometimes not,”. Sheikh, now known as the Oxygen Man, said the teachings of Prophet Muhammad inspired him to take the initiative. Like Sheikh, thousands of Indians, irrespective of age and profession, are dedicating themselves to helping distraught families as the country battles a catastrophic surge in infections and its healthcare system struggles to cope with a relentless inflow of patients.
Volunteers are running SOS groups around the clock to help people hit by the second wave of coronavirus, which on Thursday saw its deadliest day yet with 3,645 deaths and record 379,257 new COVID-19 cases. In the past two weeks, Indian social media turned into a helpline, with people asking for leads on the availability of hospital beds, oxygen, plasma donors and vital drugs such as remdesivir.
Humanity is alive and we can see it in these disturbing times.