In a country where most people fear lockdowns more than the virus and where some of us barely manage a morsel of food, what happens amid a shortage of oxygen? Air maybe free, but what if it's pure oxygen that we need to survive?
Tales of people dying from lack of access to oxygen cylinders during the Covid-19 pandemic became a common one.
As the oxygen crisis spread, the government scrambled for solutions. In the end, it was too little, too late.
But just when all hopes were lost, communities began to rise, scripting a socialist dream in a capitalist land.
Meet the oxygen heroes
Students, youths and individuals coming together, lending a helping hand to the vulnerable people and becoming a ray of hope for their survival is the dream of any utopian land. And while we may be far from Utopia, these selfless actions bring hope.
The Joypurian Oxyman
Sixty students, known as Joypurian Oxyman, have been volunteering relentlessly 24/7 to provide oxygen for free in Joypurhat. These supplies are not only limited to Covid-19 patients, but are also available for those suffering from asthma or breathing problems.
Aside from donating oxygen cylinders, the volunteers also arrange plasma or blood for patients. All one needs to do is just give them a call. They do not accept any monetary value for the service they provide, not even the delivery cost, even if any receiver of oxygen cylinder is financially solvent.
Chief coordinator Rana Masudur Rahman said, "We know enthusiastic students are residing in every corner of Bangladesh; we have built a platform where students, dedicated youths and individuals have united under one umbrella to help Joypurians."
Recounting a moment that exemplified what help for the group means, Joint Coordinator of Joypurian Trust Abm Emrul Hasan Soikot said that after one midnight call, a volunteer had to cross 15kms to reach a distressed woman suffering from a breathing problem.
Ten kilometres of the journey was on a motorcycle, while the remaining five was on foot. No matter how inaccessible a location is, it does not act as a deterrent for this group of volunteers.
With the aim of aiding people, the voluntary organisation Joypurian Trust was formed in 2018, comprising students from educational institutions of Joypurhat. Joypurian Trust Free Oxygen Service started its journey on 8 October 2020 with 10 cylinders provided by Pay it Forward Bangladesh and Manusher Jonno Manush Foundation. Now they have more than 50 cylinders. Student of Dhaka University Ashik Omy first informed the Joypurian Trust about the source of the 10 cylinders. Later on, organisations, groups of companies and many benevolent individual donors donated oxygen cylinders to the initiative.
The Joypurian oxymen have served around 300 people so far.
Even after the pandemic, the trust aspires to build the first Oxygen Bank in Joypurhat and continue the noble work of supplying oxygen for free.
The power of social media
Anusha Anowar, a community mobilizer, used to work for raising funds for various issues since her college days. She was approached by Zahid Amin, project coordinator of Uttoran, to raise funds for oxygen cylinders.
Anusha said, "Zahid didn't care which foundation is helping the people; the banner of a foundation was secondary to us, what mattered the most was to be able to provide help to the distressed people…."
When the gravity of the situation dawned upon her, Anusha posted on her Facebook and Instagram accounts about the initiative of donating oxygen to the people of Satkhira.
Her posts and stories were widely shared and helped her raise 1.5 lakh taka to provide oxygen to the people of Shatkhira. With the help of individuals, Anusha has provided the first oxygen contractor and numerous oxygen cylinders to the Shatkhira district.
The difference between an oxygen cylinder and an oxygen contractor is that an oxygen contractor doesn't require any refill as it has a built-in mechanism for generating oxygen.
Anusha and Zahid have also spoken to the local doctors for need assessments. Currently, the health complexes in the Upazila need more oxygen, while the Shatkhira medical hospital has sufficient oxygen but requires more Remdisivir, the lifesaving injection for treating critical Covid-19 patients.
Furthermore, Anusha learned that for all the people in Tala, Assasuni and Kolarao, there was only one public ambulance in Tala and two ambulances in Kolarao. But, not a single ambulance was solely dedicated to Covid-19 patients.
There is also only one Covid-19 dedicated hospital in Shatkhira Sadar named Satkhira Medical Hospital, which, unfortunately, is around 25-60km away from the Upazila districts.
Amidst frequent shutdowns, arranging transportation has become a difficult task for the patients. Based on their need assessment, currently, the two foundations are raising funds for more ambulances, oxygen cylinders and medical supplies, including Remdisivir.
They are currently raising funds for ambulances and other required medical supplies for Satkhira.
Speaking the universal language
Whenever there is any crisis, whether it's due to the unpredictable climate of Bangladesh or due to the strains of Coronavirus, the members of Universal Amity get proactive to assist people with food, shelter and other necessary supplements, said the founder member of Universal Amity, Robiul Islam Rana.
When they heard about the oxygen crisis, they started collecting funds to buy oxygen cylinders. So far, they have brought 24 oxygen cylinders with a trolley and a mask. They are refilling the oxygen cylinders and providing much-needed oxygen to the people of the Khulna division. However, they need more cylinders to fulfil the demand of the people.
Mahfuzur Rahman, who has recently completed his Masters is working as a full-time volunteer for Universal Amity. Upon one call, he rushes to supply oxygen to people at any time of the day.
Rana said they struggled to know the actual pricing of the oxygen cylinders. At first, they brought the oxygen cylinder at Tk11,000. Then, as the price skyrocketed, they had to pay Tk17,000 to buy a cylinder recently.
From 7 June 2020, Universal Amity has also been providing food to the people who became financially insolvent due to Covid-19, under their project Food for Good. With only Tk100 donations, one can secure a meal for four people.
Rana said, as oxygen cylinders become costly, it may not be possible for a single person to donate an oxygen cylinder. They have urged people to donate whatever possible and contribute to buying much-needed oxygen cylinders.
These are just three stories among many. Looking around, the rise in volunteers in every crisis paints a positive picture for the future. While communities can come together to offer help to those who need it the most, these people also need to be further empowered. For now, we can rest assured knowing that even in the direst of times, there is still hope.