A catastrophic second wave of COVID-19 has overwhelmed India’s already creaky health infrastructure, with hospitals running out of beds and oxygen, while critical drugs are being sold on a thriving black market.
Social media platforms have been flooded with SOS messages from people pleading for oxygen cylinders and hospital admissions as authorities struggled to cope with the scale of the crisis.
Amid the shortage, many places of worship, including mosques and gurdwaras, across India have come forward to help needy patients and a number of them have been turned into care centres for COVID patients.
Mufti Arif Falahi, head of a seminary in the western city of Baroda, has taken on a different job over the past weeks: saving lives.
A part of Falahi’s seminary in the western state of Gujarat, home to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been turned into a makeshift care centre for COVID patients.
Delhi: Green Park mosque converted into COVID19 quarantine center with 10 beds
We've also arranged medicines, mask sanitizers & PPE kits for patients. On doctor's prescription, we'll admit them. We'll also provide them food: Joint Secy, Managing Committee, Green Park Mosque(ANI) pic.twitter.com/e7iEexBmb0
— NDTV (@ndtv) April 30, 2021
“Every day, we have to turn away 50-60 people because we can only accommodate 142 with oxygen support,” Falahi told Al Jazeera over the phone.
On Monday, India recorded 3,754 deaths, a slight dip after two consecutive days of more than 4,000 deaths. Daily infections stood at more than 360,000.
India is the second-worst hit country by COVID-19 with 246,116 fatalities and more than 22 million cases – 10 million added in the last four months. But experts say actual caseloads and death tolls are much higher than the official figures.
An acute shortage of ICU beds
Hospitals across India, including in the capital New Delhi and financial hub Mumbai, have run out of space.
Experts estimate that India needs 500,000 more ICU beds to meet the mounting health crisis. The country of 1.3 billion people currently has about 95,000 ICU beds, according to an estimate by the Centre For Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy.
Falahi’s seminary also has a 38-bed isolation facility providing patients with medicine and food. He says they admit people of all faiths to the make-shift centre.
“We are trying to help maximum people, but we are struggling to procure oxygen,” he said, referring to an oxygen shortage that has affected the whole country.
Scores of people have died due to oxygen shortages in hospitals, forcing the Supreme Court to step in and order the creation of a task force of experts to conduct an “oxygen audit”.
At the seminary-turned-COVID centre in Baroda, Dr Jaykar Chtrabuji is one of nine doctors who volunteer there.
“It is really a stressful situation,” Chatrabuji told Al Jazeera, adding that he barely has time to sleep as he works for more than 20 hours a day at times.
“But this is also satisfying because it is helping people. The rich may afford to go to private hospitals but the poor cannot. That’s why we are seeing so many people coming to us,” he said.
“It is becoming hard to decide whom to admit because there is not much capacity,” he said.
‘Show our humanity’
In another corner of Baroda – a city of 2 million – Jahangirpura Mosque has also been turned into a 50-bed COVID facility and patients admitted have access to oxygen.
“This is the time that we all should come together to help people; that’s what our religion teaches us,” Muhammad Irfan, mosque trustee, told Al Jazeera.
“Virus does not have a religion and we believe it’s a crisis and we must aid all and show our humanity. Currently, in our facility there are many people from other religions but we have opened them for everyone,” he said.
A part of the mosque has also been turned into a temporary outpatient department to treat patients with mild symptoms.
People across India have come forward to lend whatever help they can.
Arshad Siddiqui’s phone has not stopped ringing for the past three weeks. The chairman of Red Crescent Society of India, an NGO based in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera they are desperate calls for oxygen.
Siddiqui’s NGO, which is not related to any other organisation with similar name, is using 20 mosques across Maharashtra to make oxygen cylinders and refilling accessible to people.
“We started the volunteer work 10 days ago, and initially we were overwhelmed with as many as 20,000 calls every day,” Siddiqui said, adding that the situation in Mumbai is improving now.
“We decided to utilise mosques for reaching out to people because we are under lockdown and mosques are empty right now and we believe this time people are dying and struggling for help,” Siddiqui told Al Jazeera.
He said that his NGO is planning to extend their services to people in the most populous state of India – Uttar Pradesh – which is facing one of the worst outbreaks of the virus.
‘Trying to save lives’
Moulana Umer Ahmad Ilyas, chief preacher of the Delhi-based All India Imam Organisation, has appealed to Muslims across India to open mosques and religious schools as COVID centres.
“I have appealed to the Muslims as we have 550,000 mosques across India to turn them into facilitation centres for patients,” Ilyas told Al Jazeera.
“The virus is spreading fast and, keeping the situation in view, I appeal to all Muslims to pray at home and help others. There can be no greater worship at this time in the holy month of Ramadan than saving people.”
In New Delhi’s Okhla area religious leaders and community members decided to open 20 mosques as COVID care and isolation wards.
In the southern city of Bengaluru – known as India’s silicon valley – the Muslim community has offered a mosque, a seminary and a wedding hall to be used as makeshift care centres.
Mullah Maqsood Imran, a religious preacher and part of the group Muslim SOS in Karnataka state, of which Bengaluru is the capital, says they are overwhelmed by the desperate messages and calls that keep coming round the clock.
“Last night, a 30-year-old woman needed oxygen and we got the message in the group at 9pm, it took us till to 2am to arrange the oxygen bed for her. We didn’t rest till then. The situation is going bad here,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that in the mosque 50 patients are getting treatment from last one week with oxygen facilities and paramedics.
Dr Lalit Kanth, an epidemiologist and health expert based in New Delhi, said that initiatives from the people have come as the government institutions seemed to have failed.
“The social initiatives by people and volunteers from different communities are most welcome, Kanth said, adding that “communities always come forward to assist in times of calamity”.