Young volunteers are helping hundreds of COVID-19 patients and their family members, as well as others affected by the pandemic to find hospital beds, oxygen, medicines, and food to survive

Kathmandu, June 19

When 25-year-old Pragya Bajracharya joined Hami Nepal Youth Organisation as a board member in 2020, she had a little idea about the situation of COVID-19 in Nepal. Later, when she started working as the point of contact for those infected with COVID-19 in need of medical supplies, she realised how critical the condition was in the country.

Her organisation had made contact details of several of their members public so that those in need could reach out to them. Bajracharya's cell phone number was one of them.

"Once my number was made public on May 2, I started receiving more than 30 phone calls every day from COVID-19 patients and their families requesting oxygen, beds in hospital among others," she shared.

Since then Bajracharya and her teammates have been helping people infected with COVID-19 and their family members find hospital beds, medical oxygen and medicines in Kathmandu.

Photo Courtesy: Pragya Bajracharya
Photo Courtesy: Pragya Bajracharya

The group has also been helping government hospitals arrange oxygen supply, ventilators, and beds among others by collecting funds from the public, as per Bajracharya.

Being involved in all these activities, Bajracharya's experience has so far been "overwhelming".

She expressed, "I had never seen such crisis. The situation is frightening."

Sharing her experience while she was in Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital (STIDH), Teku for situation assessment of COVID-19 infection, she recalled, "I met a couple infected with COVID-19. They had been to five other hospitals before reaching STIDH. Those hospitals had refused to provide them the treatment due to lack of hospital beds. Their teary eyes reflected the scenario of the whole country."

In another instance, Bajracharya also came across a patient who was having a hard time finding an ambulance as the ambulance driver was trying to overcharge him.

Through her organisation she helps such people by arranging ambulances free of charge.

Bajracharya is one among hundreds of citizen volunteers across the country who are doing everything they can to help with COVID-19 aid and relief efforts.

"I feel guilty even when I go to sleep. I get many calls and texts from those who do not have food to eat, seeking help from us. How can I just leave their problems unaddressed and go to sleep?" asks 22-year-old Sangitraj Bantawa, who has been volunteering with Menz Foundation to help COVID-19-hit families and daily wage workers with food supplies.

The foundation has identified more than 15,000 families who are facing shortage of food supplies in Kathmandu, shared Bantawa.

As per him, so far his foundation has managed to reach around 3,500 families. Giving a picture of what the situation of people is, Bantawa, a student of Social Work informed, "We travel to about 40 locations around Kathmandu Valley in a day to supply food for those in need at their doorsteps. And I have found people's situation is really difficult - they have no food to eat. I used to think that people used to fake their situation of not having food to get free ration, but I have realised that's not true - many people are going through a really difficult situation."

Describing an instance he said, "We had reached Kalanki to distribute food, a police officer stopped us and asked if we could support a girl child suffering from paralysis. We went to her place, her situation was heartbreaking.

She was 12 years old and lying on a bed with eyes wide open. We were speechless.

Her mother, a daily wage worker, had been out of work due to the prohibitory orders. We provided them a ration package sufficient for a month."

Dev Parajuli, 30, has been volunteering with Shree Pingla Youth Club since last year's lockdown to manage COVID-19 related medical supplies and food supplies for the needy.

His team has been receiving hundreds of requests for help. But Parajuli is saddened by the fact that they are unable to address all the requests. "At times I feel it doesn't matter even if you help 30 people as there are 15 more people you can't help. That's when I feel completely helpless."

Parajuli, who works for logistics management in a company, shared, "I have broken down in tears on so many occasions in these past few days seeing people's condition - they have been suffering from starvation and health problems."

He recalled a situation, "We were distributing ration packages around Pashupati area. There was a large number of people, but the packages with us were insufficient for all of them. As we were returning after the distribution, I encountered a family who touched my feet and begged for ration package.

I could do nothing. In my pocket, I had money to pay my house rent. I bought the ration packages with that money and handed over to those who hadn't got it earlier."

Risks and challenges

Bajracharya is well aware about the risk involved while working as a volunteer in the field to help people infected with COVID-19.

"I understand there is always going to be the risk of being infected by the virus. However, if all of us start thinking in such a manner, the fatalities of COVID-19 will continue to increase and the chain of infection will never be broken," she expressed.

However, as Bajracharya goes out everyday a volunteer, she fears of bringing COV- ID-19 infection back home. So, she stays away from her family in isolation. An employee at an IT company, she has taken two weeks' break from her work to continue her volunteer service.

"I know it's risky to be around COVID-19 patients but we can't let them suffer. I think all citizens need to be awake as far as our government sleeps, and help those in need," said Shivraj Basnet, 31, a teacher by profession, who has been volunteering at an isolation centre in Tilganga. He has been helping out with logistics, medical supplies and cleanliness at the isolation centre.

For his wife's safety, Basnet has not returned home since he started working at the isolation centre and has been residing there.

He visits his wife once every 15 days.

"It's been long that I haven't been home.

And the COVID-19 infected patients at the centre are now my family,'' he expressed.

Along with their personal problems, these volunteers are also frustrated with the lackadaisical nature of the government.

Citing his frustration with the government, Parajuli remarked, "We are concerned about one thing - about how people's lives can be saved. But it is the government that should have been actually concerned about this, which sadly our government is not doing."

They also complain of not getting the community's support for their work. "We are treated as if we are the spreaders of the virus.

I have even heard people saying that we are involved in volunteering just to be 'hero' and gain attention. That is disheartening,'' shared Basnet.

Meanwhile, Bantawa shared how his neighbours view him with eyes full of doubt whenever he enters his home.

"We are trying to help those in need. Instead of appreciating our effort, people tend to demotivate us. One neighbour even asked me to do a PCR test daily, if I was to live in the locality."

Motivated to help the needy

Despite the challenges associated with their work and very less support, these volunteers are working continuously. As a volunteer, Bajracharya is busy everyday from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm. What drives her towards volunteering? "Since the very beginning, it was clear to me that happiness is not an individual but a collective act. My volunteering journey had made me realise that giving happiness to others is the best way to make yourself happy. Volunteering takes me out of my comfort zone and makes me see the reality from someone else's perspective. In the current crisis, volunteering has been comforting and has helped me overcome the feeling of helplessness," she shared.

Working continually everyday to help others, she gets tired yet Bajracharya shared, "I wake up energetically every morning looking forward to doing more than what I had done yesterday. Making my hands dirty increases my appetite and makes me feel at peace." It is not that she did not have sleepless nights and tiring days. "But I've been learning and growing every day and there is not a day when I have ever regretted my decision of volunteering. I feel like I have found the true purpose of my life," she stated.

Bantawa shared that it's people's suffering he can't bear to see. "I am aware that people are suffering and are in complete distress.

Here we are making momo and pizza at home for a change of taste, and there are people who don't even have a handful of rice to eat. So, I want to help those in need," he said.

Sharing his connection with one of the COVID-19 patients at the isolation centre, Basnet said, "There is an old woman and now she regards me as her son. She looks at me like I am her son and that is the best part.

But sadly, she is in pain all the time. I hope she gets well soon."

For Basnet volunteering at the isolation centre has been "giving me satisfaction. I believe our support is going to make a difference in the lives of people facing difficulties".

This is not the first time that Basnet has been involved in volunteering. Previously, he had been part of several blood donation campaigns, relief distribution to those affected by 2015 earthquake, and cleanliness campaigns among others.

Parajuli on the other hand is happy how he has been receiving "blessings from people I have helped. It's the best feeling and it is what keeps me going".

A version of this article appears in the print on June 20, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.