With doctors sounding doomsayers to keep the Covid spike in check in the valley, fresh viral deaths are only making the oxygen campaign of a Srinagar-based humanitarian body as a crucial initiative today.
BONAPORA, Batamaloo – As one of those unassuming heroes who don’t wear capes, Shahid Ahmad is handling the perilous pandemic like a seasoned crisis manager.
His calm composure amid a torrent of calls pleading for oxygen machines makes him one of the determined ground troopers holding the fort when the going is indeed getting tough in Kashmir.
Behind a glass counter in a newly-constructed building of an old Batamaloo neighbourhood, Shahid treats the distressed visitors with patience and compassion.
“Since last year when Covid left Kashmir gasping for breath, I’ve witnessed some overwhelming scenes here,” Shahid says, as he issues another oxygen cylinder, this time to a distressed son whose mother is struggling to breathe.
“But it feels terrible when people come to return oxygen machines and tell their patients couldn’t make it!”
As a foot soldier of SRO (Social Reform Organisation) Kashmir, “a Trust, established in 2004, for the welfare of the poor”, Shahid is only predicting the tough times in Kashmir as pandemic lately turned perilous.
In the resurgent viral phase, calls for oxygen are buzzing. Some even ring in the middle of the night when the jetlagged Shahid tries some sleep after a demanding day in office.
But the Samaritan leaves bed with a sense of duty, and issues oxygen machine to the distressed caller at the drop of a hat.
Unsung heroes like Shahid are silently working on the ground to mitigate the Covid crisis which returned as a bogeyman in Kashmir after wreaking havoc in Delhi and other Indian states.
Kashmir administration says it’s ready to tackle all the challenges and has made sufficient arrangements to face the second wave.
However, reports suggest that Kashmir’s primary tertiary-care hospital may run short of space and services if the number of Covid patients continues to grow at the present rate.
To support the health infrastructure, many welfare bodies have joined the government to fight this pandemic on the community level.
Among them, SRO Kashmir has been at the forefront to avert the humanitarian crisis created by Covid from last year when Kashmir got its first Covid positive case.
Soon as the authorities put the entire Srinagar under strict restrictions, people found it hard to buy essentials and avail healthcare services.
In the backdrop of this distress situation, a Srinagar-based social activist thought of doing something for the needy.
Mohammed Afaaq Sayeed first created a group on Facebook to help people to fight the fallouts of the pandemic virus and to create awareness about it.
“We created that group after a lot of brainstorming with my colleagues and friends, including those doctors, journalists and traders,” Sayeed recalls.
“And the response was overwhelming. Within a month we reached the membership of over 16,000 people, which has risen to 22,000 now.”
The admin of the group under the name of ‘Coronavirus Watch J&K’ used to post the things related to coronavirus, seeking suggestions from the doctors about Dos and Don’ts.
Soon the group started receiving distress calls from people regarding the shortage of food and other essentials.
“A lot of people were asking for help and many others were willing to donate for the cause,” Sayeed recalls. “We decided to help people, but lacked team.”
It was then Sayeed approached the SRO Kashmir for the cause which one year down the line would not only touch countless lives, but also become a synergic community response from Kashmir.
Sayeed’s move was measured, as SRO Kashmir had a history of relief and rehabilitation works, especially after a massive earthquake struck Kashmir in 2005.
The welfare body was also active on the ground during the 2014 floods, when the overflowing Jhelum made muck and mess of the South Asia’s second oldest city—Srinagar.
“Initially, we would collect donations from locals and try to resolve the issue in and around Batamaloo,” says Javeed A. Dar, chairman and the founding member of SRO Kashmir.
“But as the situational crisis became frequent in Kashmir, we decided to spread out with the helping hand.”
During political lockdowns in recent past, the welfare body helped people by arranging ambulances, medicines and other essentials.
Sayeed used the same crisis-mitigation experience, expertise and infrastructure of SRO Kashmir to deal with the pandemic pathos.
“But to avoid the rush of the people in contagion, we had to temporarily shift the office to another place,” Sayeed says.
Initially, the welfare body was able to deliver food kits to over 1500 families at their doorsteps. The food was sufficient for a family of six for a month.
After months of food program, the NGO started helping expecting mothers with nutrition kits and other needy items, based on the proper prescription of gynaecologists.
“Our woman volunteers handled the program very efficiently and everything went on smoothly,” Sayeed says.
After months of helping people through various programs, the group finally decided to “prepare for worst”.
The shift in the strategy came after the strict Covid restrictions were eased out in the valley.
As shops and other business establishments were reopened, people started taking the virus lightly. Soon, more and more cases were reported along with the rising Covid casualties.
“So keeping this thing in mind,” Sayeed continues, “we had another video session where many doctors including based outside India suggested that we should procure oxygen concentrators as most of the hospitals were running short of that.”
SRO Kashmir soon put aside all its programs and decided to work on the Oxygen Kashmir program.
In the first attempt, it procured around 100 oxygen cylinders, which have now risen to over 200 bulk, high-flow oxygen cylinders.
Within a few days, people with Covid-19 symptoms felt the dire need of oxygen. And as the hospitals were unable to cater the demand, SRO Kashmir chipped in, and helped people with oxygen concentrators.
“We would get around 50-100 distress calls every day and night,” Dar says. “People were in dire need of oxygen. And we kept ourselves on toes and tried to fill the void.”
Since its inception, ‘Oxygen Program’ supported more than 750 patients at hospitals and homes.
As more and more people knew about SRO Kashmir’s ‘Save the Breath’ initiative, they started donating for the cause.
Other than bank transfers, the team also got ‘Sadqah and Zakat’ in kind — like rice, edible oil, spices, tea, etc, for the needy section of the society.
“Such was the response that our volunteer team even received chocolates and other eatables from our donors,” Sayeed says.
“This boosted our morale and our intention of doing more for the public welfare.”
Under the same program, SRO Kashmir has also reached out to many COVID positive patients with life-saving drugs and other medical equipment.
For touching peoples’ lives, the welfare body mostly drew emotional response from the strife-ridden community.
On August 14, 2020, a woman from Downtown Srinagar donated a gold ring for SRO Kashmir’s “Oxygen Kashmir” campaign.
Sayeed terms the gesture as an overwhelming moment for the members.
“She had come to our office to return an oxygen concentrator which she had taken for her ailing family member few weeks ago,” he recalls.
During the same time, Sayeed received another distress call from a girl at around 12 in the night.
The anxious girl was crying on the phone as her mother was “about to die”.
“Her mother was in dire need of oxygen but it was too late,” Sayeed recounts. “Our volunteers were asleep and the office was closed. So I drove the car and arranged the oxygen cylinder for the woman.”
On the next day, the group received the call that the woman is alive and doing well as they could arrange the oxygen on time.
“This gave us so much happiness that we are able to save someone’s life,” Sayeed smiles.
Similarly, when a teenager from Srinagar died in a road accident last year, his father came to SRO Kashmir’s office to hand over Rs 3600 retrieved from his dead son’s pocket.
“The money had blood stains of his son,” Sayeed recalls. “Rather than keeping them as his dead son’s souvenir, he told us that only you deserve this.” Such moments kept boosting the confidence of the members of the welfare body amid stressful situation.
In October last year, a woman donated Rs 42000 in cash for the NGO to procure an oxygen concentrator.
“She wanted to dedicate and donate the equipment in the name and memory of her recently deceased father,” Sayeed says.
“There are countless such emotional moments where donors donated warmly.”
But apart from ‘saving breaths’ in Kashmir, SRO Kashmir also arranged more than 350 Plasma donors for Covid patients through its ‘Plasma for Kashmir’ program.
The group has a separate team for motivating the donors for their lifesaving plasma. “Everything goes through website,” Sayeed says, adding that they facilitate and arrange everything for donors.
Plus, SRO Kashmir’s free 24×7 ambulance service has been ferrying more than 800 patients every month on an average. The ambulance would cover 360 kilometers every day.
From last year itself, the welfare body has catered around 5000 patients in Kashmir.
“We also provide counselling and advice to many distressed people on the phone on a daily basis,” Sayeed informs.
According to the data on its website, SRO Kashmir in 2020 closed more than 8000 SOS / Help calls and forwarded 400 cases to other NGOs for redressal.
“But this past winter was challenging, as unscheduled power cuts threatened the oxygen supply of the critical patients,” Sayeed says. “We had to arrange 7 power generators and procure bulk oxygen cylinders to counter the crisis.”
And now, as the second wave has already gripped the valley and created another distressing situation, SRO Kashmir is planning to expand the operation to the other parts of the valley.
“We may be currently catering the health emergency in the city itself, but we have given oxygen cylinders to the people of Budgam, Kupwara and other districts,” Dar says. “We will also get some relief and that will strengthen our operation throughout Kashmir.”
Meanwhile, at Bonapora, Shahid is serving the distressed Kashmiris with the deep sense of devotion. Leaving his office counter, he even ferries the heavy oxygen machines for the glum visitors.
“We are all in this together,” Shahid says, with a smile. “If we don’t work for each other’s welfare, who will?”
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