India is gasping for air

Many Indians are doing all they can to help their compatriots suffering from COVID-19, but volunteer work alone cannot get us out of this crisis.

Medics tend to a man with breathing problems inside a COVID-19 ward of a government-run hospital, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021. [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

“I can give you one vial for Rs 15,000 ($200),” said the man on the phone, after I reassured him that I was not an undercover cop. He was the fifth person I called asking to buy Remdesivir – an anti-viral drug widely used in the treatment of COVID-19.

I never imagined turning to the black market to buy coronavirus medicine, but my mother was battling the deadly disease in a hospital in Pune, India and I was desperate. I knew it was up to me to get my mother the treatment she desperately needs, even though I was in Mumbai, some 150km away from her.

My ordeal started on April 9, on my brother’s 30th birthday. When I called to give him my best wishes, he answered in a panic.

“We just got the test result,” he said, “Mama tested positive for COVID-19.”

I felt like someone pulled the rug from underneath me.

Then, India’s COVID-19 crisis had already started. The number of infections was rising exponentially, and most hospitals were at full capacity. There was already an acute shortage of oxygen cylinders, and some were struggling to get even the most basic medicines and treatments for the disease. On social media, friends and acquaintances were constantly sharing tragic stories about the loved ones they lost to the disease, and desperate pleas for help.

As I hang up the phone, I shuddered, thinking that I too may soon join them.

We consulted doctors over the phone and started monitoring my mother’s condition at home. We were hoping that she would be able to defeat the virus without being hospitalised. But on April 12, her oxygen levels started to drop and her fever kept going up. Doctors had warned us that if her blood oxygen level dropped to anything below 92, she would need to be hospitalised immediately.

So when we saw it was 90, we started looking for a hospital bed.

Fortunately, we were able to secure a bed for her relatively quickly. But the hospital was running low on crucial COVID-19 medications, so her physician asked us to privately acquire six vials of Remdesivir to improve her chances of making a full and speedy recovery.

Remdesivir is hard to find not only in Pune, but across the country. Despite the country being known as “the world’s pharmacy”, with tens of thousands of new infections and hospitalisations each day, producers are struggling to meet the demand for medications used in the treatment of COVID-19.

As I knew I could not just walk into a pharmacy and buy the drug, I shared the message that I needed six vials of Remdesivir for my mother on social media. My tweet asking for help has been retweeted thousands of times, and I became inundated with offers of help within minutes. People sent me leads, helpline numbers, and contact information for non-governmental organisations working on the ground. Sadly, all turned out to be dead ends. Most helpline numbers did not even ring, and the few that did were never answered.

Knowing how quickly this virus kills, my anxiety rose, and I decided to turn to the black market.

I had heard about India’s growing COVID-19 black market long before my mother got sick, because others trying to find crucial medicines for their sick, loved ones were talking about it openly on social media.

“I don’t want to die. Please pray for me,” said my ill and helpless mother from the hospital on the phone with me. She had been there for about five days with no real improvement to her health.

Getting in touch with the hospital to get an update on my mom’s health was a herculean task. I had to ring three different people for updates and getting any sort of concrete response from the already overburdened healthcare workers was an impossible mission.

So I asked colleagues and friends to get me in touch with people who may be willing to sell vials of Remdesivir. They gave me several telephone numbers.

In the following hours, I talked to dozens of people all across India. Some told me that I would need to travel hundreds of kilometres in a pandemic-stricken country to get what I need. Others demanded extraordinary amounts of money.

In pre-pandemic times, one vial of Remdesivir cost approximately Rs 1000, or $14, in India. On the black market, I have been asked to pay about Rs 15,000 ($200) for one vial of injection. For the six vials that my mother needed, I was expected to part with at least Rs 90,000 ($1,200). To put it in perspective, this is the equivalent of more than twice the average Mumbai monthly salary, and three times the median rent.

After 12 excruciating hours on the phone to strangers, some friends of friends came to my rescue. They told me that they could find the medicine I need and get it to my mother in a reasonable time frame.

When I found out that help was on its way, I broke down crying. I had never felt so helpless and scared before. But I was also grateful. I knew that I got lucky – mostly due to my relative privilege and social connections – and not everyone does in these situations. Indeed, a recent survey by LocalCircles, a social media platform for communities to raise issues and solve problems, found that 55 percent of hospital beds in India were given to people with some connections and clout, while only 13 percent of patients were able to get a hospital bed through the routine process.

As my mama spent more time in the hospital, we both quickly realised how her fight against COVID-19 was a lonely one. She recounted how she had to pray for herself in that condition and while she was mostly sedated, she couldn’t stop thinking about us, her kids. There was a point when she thought she wouldn’t make it. That’s when she called me and asked me to pray for her.

My mom is on the mend now and is recuperating at home. But the situation in India has gone from bad to worse. In the last few weeks, the number of eulogies, desperate requests for oxygen and ventilators, and videos of people cremating their loved ones on my social media feeds has been overwhelming.

I have never seen my country in such a hauntingly desperate situation. I have spent the majority of my life in this country, and yet it now feels foreign to me. I feel like I am in a post-apocalyptic movie, in which the world is under attack by aliens and the few survivors are scrambling to protect themselves and their loved ones. The invading alien in this case is COVID-19 and it has already claimed more than 200,000 Indian lives.

After the ordeal I went through to get my mother the medication she needed, I decided to do something to help others in that situation.

I started a Facebook community group with my friend, Zoraiz Riaz, who had achieved enormous success with a similar group in Pakistan.

Our group currently has more than 5,000 members and we are getting 30 to 40 requests for urgent help a day. Some come to our group to ask for help in finding COVID-19 medications, oxygen tanks or hospital beds. Others come looking for ways to cremate the bodies of their loved ones – with the unprecedented number of coronavirus fatalities, it is as hard to get a cremation in India today as it is to get a hospital bed.

The most desperate requests we get are usually from smaller towns and cities. Many in these areas have very limited resources and information available to them. We recently got a request from the city of Bareilly, which is located in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, for oxygen cylinders and some really basic COVID-19 medicines. It is easier to find people and organisations willing to help in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and direct those in need to them. But for those living in rural areas and small towns, we often struggle to find the right kind of help.

While we attempt to connect those in need with those who can give, tackling this problem on an individual basis can only go so far.

It is true that there are so many across India trying their best to help in every way they can. So many have found medicines, hospital beds, oxygen tanks and cremation sites for their loved ones thanks to the kindness of strangers online. But well-meaning individuals can only do so much. To dramatically slow, and then end, the spread of this virus, we need a more coordinated effort from our leaders and the international community. Volunteer work is helping a lot of people in need, but it is not a sustainable model to deal with this catastrophe.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.