Seventy-year-old Shaktimani Chatterjee, was gasping for breath. Her oxygen level had dipped to 73. Her husband, also a Covid patient, dialed a doctor-friend, who, unable to help, reached out to the Red Volunteers (RV). In less than an hour, four boys were at their door with a 50 litre oxygen cylinder. Since that day, the elderly couple has been getting medicines, oxygen, home-cooked food and even someone to baby-sit their grand-daughter. In Bengal, there are countless examples like this one where timely intervention by the RV has either saved lives or was responsible for a dignified send off for the dead.
When Rathindranath Pramanik’s 65-year-old mother died of Covid in Hooghly’s Shyampur-Paschimpara area, her family members had no idea how to go about getting her to the cremation ground. It was raining heavily and no ambulance or hearse was available. “Someone had forwarded the number of the RV to me, and I called them to see if they could help. They were soon at our home wearing PPE suits to take my mother away. They carried the body on their shoulders to the crematorium,” says Pramanik.
The Left may have been wiped out in the state’s Legislative Assembly, but its youth brigade has been a force on the streets, especially through the second wave of Covid. Even for sanitising entire localities, people are calling up the RV. “The municipality/ corporation usually santises affected buildings. But after 17 people in Sarsuna in Behala, where about 4,000 people live, came down with Covid, we had to step in. Everyone else was terrified,” says Nihar Bhakta of the RV. Spread across 23 districts of the state, RV teams (10-15 members each) focus on specific areas, be they in cities, towns or the hinterland where there are more active cases—daily spikes of 3,000 and above. So far, they have registered 80,000 members, not all of whom are affiliated to the Left. Many young people have joined the teams out of a sense of civic responsibility. Every day, the RV attends to over 3,000 distress calls from all over the state.
But how is it possible that they can deliver oxygen cylinders and even hospital beds when even the administration is struggling? Dipsita Dhar, a PhD scholar at JNU who contested the 2021 assembly election and is an active member of the RV, says the members are sincere and serious in their efforts. “We have a good network with dealers of oxygen cylinders, medicine shops, etc. In the case of hospital beds, we go straight to the authorities and pressure them. We manage to extract beds reserved for VIPs or those blocked for special cases,” says Dipsita. And miracles are happening every day. Even when hospital dashboards are showing full occupancy, the RV somehow manages to admit critical patients within 24 hours.
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