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Indian rickshaw drivers help fight COVID-19 with makeshift “three-wheeler ambulances”

A group of rickshaw taxi drivers in the Indian capital of New Delhi are doing their part to help contain the country’s raging coronavirus outbreak, converting their vehicles into makeshift ambulances to provide COVID-19 patients with first aid services.

Since March, the coronavirus epidemic has worsened alarmingly in the country, with hospitals overcrowded with patients who are waiting in long lines to see a doctor. To help those who in need reach to the hospital in the shortest time possible, a group of volunteered rickshaw taxi drivers stood out, remodeling their vehicles into makeshift ambulances to provide those who with health emergencies a ride to the hospital.

Ajay Kumar is one of the owners of the three-wheeler makeshift ambulances who serve the patients and their families free of charge.

Like his fellow drivers, Kumar strictly observes health protocols while working, wearing safety goggles, facial shield and protective suit throughout his shfit even when temperatures outdoors rise up to 40 degrees Celsius.

“Of course, I’m scared actually. It’s natural to be fearful since I have a family and a child at home,” he said.

Kumar starts his daily first-aid shift at a hospital’s entrance at 8:00 in the morning and finishes at 20:00, after which another driver would come to replace him. The ambulance fleet now consists of 20 rickshaws distributing across the city.

“We have a social media account. These rickshaw ambulances are deployed in different places. If someone sends a message or calls us, we will pick them up,” said Kumar.

The rickshaw ambulances can be easily identified as their carriage is usually wrapped in large-size photos of the fleet and printed with emergency call numbers in large bold text. It also took the drivers a great deal of courage to stand by at a hospital for 12 hours, as hospitals were the most dangerous place people liked to stay away from when the epidemic curve steepened to unprecedented levels.

“We were inundated with phone calls at the beginning, answering about 1,000 to 1,200 calls per day. We had to increase the number of rickshaws from 10 to 20. During peak times, we would transport 100 to 150 patients and their family members on a single day. On average, each rickshaw picks up seven to eight people per day. All drivers work in 12-hour shifts,” said Servesh Mishra, organizer of the campaign.

Mishra said that they mainly serve patients with mild symptoms and their family members, and there is medical oxygen available on the vehicle in case of emergency.

“In New Delhi, the municipal ambulances are often occupied. There are also some very narrow alleys or built-up areas that are inaccessible by regular-size ambulances. In these cases, our makeshift ambulances came in handy then. We attend to people in need with oxygen cylinders,” he said.

Although the first aid work has become less toilsome in comparison with that in May for the rickshaw drivers, Mishra said the fleet will continue running with all its might and main until the coronavirus is under full control in India.



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