‘People Keep Crying and Begging’: Ambulance Drivers in Delhi Are Burning out as COVID-19 Rages

26-year-old Delhi resident Mukesh Yadav hasn’t stepped inside his house for two days. Being a private ambulance driver in the COVID-19 ravaged state, Yadav switches his phone off for two hours every night so he can get some sleep either in his office or when he can, at his home. During the day, he goes to pick up infected patients in desperate need of a hospital bed, but sometimes after searching throughout the city hospitals, he returns the patient, dead by then, back to where he picked them up from.

The Indian capital is one of the hardest hit COVID-19 districts in India, where, along with the rest of the country, healthcare infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. Hospitals don’t have enough beds for people, are running out of oxygen for the patients they do have, the vaccination process is slow, and the number of infected citizens are on the rise.

For the past year — but more so in the last month — ambulance drivers, like other frontline workers, have been on call since the onset of the pandemic. 

“I don’t know what to do. No one prepared me for this,” Yadav told Re:Set. Along with three others, he operates two large and two mini ambulances. “I get calls from Canada and Singapore for people trying to book ambulances in New Delhi. Some people keep crying and some keep begging.”

Yadav, along with the other drivers, stays in a queue for hours to get oxygen tanks for his ambulance each night. Most of the time, they’re unable to procure one legally. On the black market, he said a cylinder is going from anywhere between ₹30,000 to ₹50,000. To offset this, he’s also had to double the rate of his ambulance services from ₹3,750 to ₹7,500.

“I want to help people, but there is no help for us private operators,” he said. “I also am emotionally drained, stressed all day. The calls never stop, and then it feels like I am deciding whose family member lives or dies.”

Oxygen is in short supply for COVID-19 patients in New Delhi and across India.

Another driver, on the condition of anonymity, told Re:Set that there are no shift timings for him anymore. He’s on call 24×7.

“People will start dying at home, so we have to try,” he said. “The most difficult thing is when we have to say no, because some people are arranging beds in other cities.” Many families in the capital are scrambling for beds in nearby cities like Panipat and Jaipur due to the shortage in Delhi, but with sometimes an entire family infected, there is no one to accompany patients who are critical.

“I went once last week to Panipat, but I said no to many this week,” he said. “It was very difficult, but takes too long, and we can help more people if we do inter-Delhi trips. But this is what I have to do many times a day, tell people to die, but who cares for us?

Ambulance providers aren’t unaware of the troubles drivers are facing. Pranav Bajaj, CEO of Medulance, an ambulance services company working with the Delhi government, told Re:Set that they’re trying all they can, but “the situation is very bad.”

Medulance handles around 600 calls for the Delhi government everyday and are trying to incentivize drivers to stay on the job through monetary support. The drivers and technicians are also provided with lots of water and PPE.

“The drivers and technicians also have to act like paramedics and help with the hospital admission process, as many people can’t take COVID-19 positive family members to the hospital,” Bajaj said. They have to wait for hours sometimes as patients try to arrange a bed in a hospital, with Medulance providing them with ₹500 for every two hours of wait time.

“Usually they do 12-hour shifts, now some days they’re doing 15 hours, even more,” Bajaj said. “They’re tired and are burning out, so we’re trying to recruit more people everyday. But it’s very difficult in the current situation.”

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