An Uber driver saved my mum’s life – India is relying on the kindness of strangers to fight Covid

·5-min read
<p>A family member carries a patient, who is having difficulty in breathing, to a free oxygen support centre being run by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, on the outskirts of New Delhi on 10 May</p> (AFP/Getty)

A family member carries a patient, who is having difficulty in breathing, to a free oxygen support centre being run by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, on the outskirts of New Delhi on 10 May


In the past month, I have lost track of how many people I have thanked for their large-heartedness and timely support.

Those doing all they can for India’s Covid-stricken include the Gurdwaras who have set up makeshift oxygen centres, where the poor in dire need can access tanks if hospitals turn them away. They include the 56-year-old Delhi policeman who has helped in the last rites of more than 1,100 people.

They include the driver of an auto-rickshaw who sold his wife’s jewellery to convert his vehicle into a makeshift ambulance. The nurse who helped a dying patient make the last call to her son, who bid her goodbye with a tearful rendition of a popular Bollywood song. The chemist who put up a sign asking patients to pay what they can. The neighbours who have opened community kitchens. The list goes on.

At the end of April, I experienced the true kindness of strangers after I sat on the bed next to my coronavirus-stricken mother in my Delhi apartment in a dull panic. She had been suffering from Covid-19 for 11 days and seemed to be gradually recovering, but her condition suddenly worsened.

Her oxygen saturation was dropping steadily, and the few times she opened her eyes to ask for water, they were unfocused.

She was hooked up to an oxygen cylinder, which I had bought for around £240 (they normally cost less than £49), but she would need round-the-clock oxygen for the next seven days.

I was suffering from coronavirus myself, but knew I had to take her to a Covid-19 facility 25 miles away. My city was, and still is, in the midst of a deadly second wave. No ambulances were available and I don’t have a car. I was losing precious time so I tried to book a cab. After several cancellations, finally, an Uber driver called to ask for my location. I told him the situation and expected him to cancel the trip, like the others, for fear of contracting the virus.

“If you want to cancel, please tell me, so I can start booking another,” I said, while opening another cab app. To my utter surprise, the driver, a man named Udit Agarwal, said, “Why would I cancel? I’ll be there in three to four minutes.” He was. He helped my 65-year-old mother into the back seat, rushed us to the facility, advised me to let her rest in the car, steadied her oxygen tank, and kept an eye on her, as I ran around in the scorching Delhi heat, pleading with the guards at the facility to let us in, and coordinating with friends over the phone.

Mr Agarwal switched off his meter, so he wouldn’t be called away on another trip, and stayed with us for the next four hours as I negotiated her entry to the facility. As evening fell and my mother got a temporary bed, he brought me back home and asked to call him if I needed to go to the facility again.

Overnight my mother’s condition worsened and I needed to transfer her to a proper hospital. Mr Agarwal arrived bright and early, his calm, smiling face was a beacon of hope. He drove me to the facility, waited until I finished the discharge formalities, and rushed us to a hospital near my home. By now we had a silent understanding. I would run around and speak to the authorities, while he stayed with my now-critical mother and would alert me if her condition had worsened.

He diligently played this role, handing her water when she needed it. In the evening, he safely drove me home and protested that the money I paid him was too much. He saw helping us as his humanitarian duty. “It could easily have been my mother,” he said quietly, when later asked why he did what he did.

Mr Agarwal, and countless others like him, are helping to manage this humanitarian crisis, filling the gaps in India’s health system, which has crashed due to coronavirus. A neighbour I have never spoken to, for example, donated a 50-litre cylinder tank on the day my mother’s oxygen levels dropped to 30 per cent. When the hospital ran out of oxygen, a group of volunteers, led by political workers, helped me refill the oxygen tanks that kept my mother alive. One of my colleagues stayed up making calls to help get me an oxygen concentrator. But some have not been so lucky, there’s an acute shortage in medical oxygen. Exhausted and overworked, Muslim doctors and paramedics at the hospital attended to patients way past the time to break their Ramadan fasts.

My oxygen container was shared by three patients whose families could not get one. Round the clock, complete strangers formed a ring of support. They relentlessly amplified social media posts asking for help, raised funds for the poor, set up food services, loaned their cars, and ran errands. I’ve had complete strangers ask me if I needed financial help. The two doctors I consulted with during my mother’s month-long struggle with Covid-19 refused to take their consultation fees. One responded: “There will be better times to earn money. We have to sail through these times together.”

Medicine is being sold at steeper prices, food and grocery deliveries are delayed, and life-saving medical equipment is being sold at 10 times the usual rate – it is completely out of reach for the financially disadvantaged. Money has almost lost its value in a country where hospitals are bursting at the seams.

The privileged, with their connections, have somewhat stayed afloat. The middle classes are running from pillar to post to save the lives of their loved ones. But the poor and the marginalised have taken a blow far worse, their plight has tragically gone underreported. The worst is when the flurry of frantic real-time posts on social media, of patients begging strangers to help them get to an ICU or an oxygen bed, gradually falls silent – one can only assume the worst.

It’s not fair to ask our citizens to hold the burden of this crisis, which has gone unmanaged after an abdication of responsibility. But when things return to normal, I hope we celebrate the nameless and faceless strangers with heart and grit – who rose to the occasion when the people they elected to represent them didn’t.

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