“I was at my wit’s end, not knowing exactly what to do next as my mother’s oxygen saturation values started fluctuating,” says Patna-based Kunal Tiwari, recalling his ordeal during the peak of COVID pandemic.
“The pandemic simply exposed the harsh reality about the fragility of the healthcare system as Patna ran out of oxygen. I was not sure if my mother would survive,” added Kunal, who is a lawyer at the Patna High Court.
Kunal’s mother had tested positive on April 24 and her condition became critical 4 days later. “I was unsure about what to do. Then I came across a Patna-based start-up, ‘Hanuman’, which provided me with an oxygen concentrator — a priceless support that saved the life of my 68-year mother,” the lawyer said.
Pushpendra faced a similar ordeal on May 2 when his father, V S Ojha, a school principal, required hospitalisation after his oxygen level dipped. He was admitted to the ICU of a prominent hospital within a few hours with help from ‘Hanuman’, which stands for Health Accessible in Need and Utility for MANkind.
“My father is a diabetic and his condition could have worsened, but for the timely intervention of Hanuman,” said Pushpendra.
‘Hanuman’ and several other similar institutions in Bihar pulled out all the stops to help COVID patients and their attendants when the chaos and confusion reigned supreme.
Their contributions proved invaluable as the government’s health infrastructure came under severe strain with a steep rise in positive cases and deaths during the second wave.
Dr Niraj Jha is the CEO and founder of ‘Hanuman’, a start-up established during the first wave of COVID pandemic last year. Since then ‘Hanuman’ has served more than 7,000 people across Bihar, with most emergency cases handled during the second wave.
On how ‘Hanuman’ responded to the crisis, Dr Jha recalls, “As the demand for oxygen cylinders increased following a steep rise in the number of serious patients, ambulance operators faced a crisis. The price of a cylinder went up from Rs 30,000 to Rs 60,000. Hanuman bought 40 oxygen cylinders through crowdfunding with the assistance of social institutions like Karekeba Ventures, Sapna Foundation and Mithila Angel Network and donated them to ambulance operators.” They were also supported by ACT Grants, which gave them 150 oxygen concentrators.
Dr Jha’s other team members are Santosh Kumar from Bakhtiyarpur in Bihar, while Deepak Jha, an IT professional, joined recently from Malaysia.
Former students of Sainik School in Jharkhand’s Tilaiya also rose to the occasion and came forward to help the patients and their attendants. Ashish Sinha, vice-president of Sainik School Tilaiya Old Boys’ Association (SANTOBA), said a ‘virtual war room’ was opened when two school teachers — KC Panda and Sanjay Singh succumbed to the infection in April. The ‘war room’ receives calls for help and communicates on various WhatsApp groups created primarily on the basis of batches of former students.
“We started by extending help to former students of Tilaiya Sainik School and their family members, but encouraged by the response, we are now trying to support as many people as we can,” Sinha added. He said SANTOBA is perhaps the first alumni association to take such an initiative. People sought help with anything from oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ICU beds to medicines and other support. “Once such a message is received in the war room, it is passed on to a group of volunteers, who authenticate leads surfacing on social media to support COVID-19 patients. On verifying the leads, we ensure that the help is provided to patients and their attendants at the earliest,” said Sinha.
The school alumni from the United States and Canada sent around 20 oxygen concentrators for the benefit of SANTOBA members and their families.
SANTOBA secretary Amritesh Kumar said that masks, sanitizer, digital thermometers and Infrared thermometers are being distributed among villagers under its ‘Chala Gaon Ki Ore’ programme. Oxygen cylinders and concentrators have been sent to Purnea and Bhagalpur districts and more will be sent to various districts after assessing the demand.
Doctors For You (DFY), an NGO, also pulled up its socks and extended support to the state government in battling the pandemic. The Founder of DFY, Dr Ravi Kant Singh, said the NGO has set up a 110-bed COVID hospital at Patliputra sports complex in Patna. It has also provided medical equipment worth Rs 12 crore to the state government.
DFY had opened a 50-bed COVID hospital at Fatuha in Patna district during the first wave last year. The hospital is fully solar-operated and is equipped with five ICU beds.
DFY has also donated four cryogenic oxygen cylinders with each one of them having a carrying capacity of nearly 2,350 litres of oxygen each. It also donated 100 D-type oxygen cylinders and around 42 high-flow nasal cannula (HFNC) machines to the state government.
Swapan Majumdar of Bihar Voluntary Health Association (BVHA) said NGOs and individuals played a significant role in mitigating sufferings of common people during the pandemic. They have better access to the common people and so they can understand their problems better and solve them effectively.
Majumdar said that NGOs and individuals are also creating awareness among people for ramping up vaccination.
State of Bihar’s health machinery
The pathetic condition of health infrastructure in Patna could be well gauged from the fact that the state capital has only 359 beds in government hospitals and 832 beds in private hospitals for COVID patients. The situation worsened when the infection rate went as high as 12 per cent in the first week of May, albeit it has now come down to less than one percent.
The situation in other places in Bihar is equally bad. Gaya district has a population close to 43.9 lakh (Census 2011) but it has only 570 COVID beds, which means one bed per 7,702 persons while the oxygen facility is available only for half of these beds. There are just 33 ventilators, 57 BiPAP machines and 63 ICUs in the district.
Similarly, Muzaffarpur has a total of 798 hospital beds against a population of 48 lakh (Census 2011) – one bed for 6,015 people. Of these, the number of ICU beds is 248.
Bihar has 40,200 allopathic doctors for a population of 12 crore. But if this number is clubbed with 33,922 Ayush doctors, 34,257 Homoeopathic doctors, 5,203 Unani doctors and 6,130 dentists, the number jumps to over 1.19 lakh.
According to WHO, there should be one doctor for every 1,000 people. Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey told the state assembly that the state “almost” fulfils the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended doctor-population ratio as it has 1,19,000 doctors for a population of 12 crore.