A 67-year-old woman was semi-conscious as her oxygen saturation level had fallen to a dangerous 56%. Gurpreet Singh Rumy, along with a few others, was desperately trying to administer oxygen to her. That night of April 22, when Delhi-NCR was drowning in death and helplessness, remains etched in his memory.
But the following day brought hope for Rumy as the woman recovered, giving him confidence to distribute free oxygen to the affected right on the streets. It was a lifeline for scores of others who were jostling for oxygen for their friends and family amid the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Being the president of a gurdwara in Ghaziabad’s Indirapuram, not far from the borders of the capital, Rumy initiated an ‘oxygen langar’ (langar in Punjabi means a free community meal which is often distributed in gurdwaras) for those in need. At a time when the media was splashing videos and pictures of people dying outside hospitals and on the streets gasping for breath, the ‘oxygen langar’ was like a life-saver.
“Once the news of us administering oxygen to the lady and her revival went out, people swarmed us. By the next morning itself, 10 more patients had turned up. I still can’t forget those faces of desperation; that urgency to save their loved ones. The hope and plea in their eyes only made our resolve stronger,” says Rumy.
Initially, Rumy had six oxygen cylinders sourced from his real estate business in which they are needed for construction activities. He got them refilled and mounted them onto six vehicles. “They became our temporary ambulances.” But with more patients coming in, soon these temporary ambulances fell short for the increasing requirement. Rumy then took help from his business friends and urged them to provide him with more oxygen cylinders.
“We also started purchasing cylinders and as the ‘oxygen langar’ got further known, donations started pouring in. Some people also donated cylinders. That helped us create 20 oxygen beds on the roadside,” Rumy says.
The crisis that forced people to stay locked in their homes also saw some fearless souls like Rumy and his fellow social workers put humanity before their own lives. Both of Rumy’s sons were equally involved in the relief work and, in the process, also contracted the deadly virus. However, they recovered fully and are doing fine now.
During the first wave, in June 2020 itself, Rumy had floated Khalsa Help International, an NGO that provided medical and other assistance to Covid-affected families and patients. “During the second wave, too, people started calling us incessantly for help. Some for oxygen, some for beds, some for medicines, and we felt helpless,” Rumy recalls. “We just had to do something.”
With most hospitals putting up the ‘no bed available’ sign, it was up to the likes of Rumy to come to the common man’s rescue. But did he ever feel discouraged by the general public’s behaviour of shutting themselves inside out of fear? “It’s natural, isn’t it? We all want our family’s safety. But I must say that sometimes, people need that one example to follow. Once ‘oxygen langar’ gained traction, volunteers and help poured in from all corners. Covid has reminded us the importance of being humane,” says Rumy.
Apart from oxygen cylinders, the gurdwara also got some oxygen concentrators which increased the patients’ intake capacity. Patients from various financial backgrounds arrived at the gurdwara but they were allotted beds only on the basis of their oxygen saturation level. “I remember refusing to give an oxygen bed to a wealthy patient whose oxygen level was above 92 and instead admitting a rickshaw puller’s son whose saturation level was a low 60,” says Rumy. The ‘oxygen langar’ concept was so successful that other gurdwaras across the country followed suit.
In recognition of Rumy’s work, the UP government gave him the responsibility of converting the Krishna Dental College in Ghaziabad’s Mohan Nagar into a hospital. Rumy converted the college into a 100-bed hospital with oxygen support. With a medical team already in place since 2020, he hired more staff to run the hospital.
People, too, were happy to help. “Within 10 days, we got more than 80 cylinders and a good number of concentrators. We also got a lot of financial assistance from NRIs,” says Rumy. Soon, other medical facilities such as MRIs started getting offered free of cost. “While any other diagnostic centre would charge Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 for an MRI, we offered the facility free of cost,” says Rumy. He ran the hospital till mid-June after the Covid-19 cases started to decline and hospital beds were easier to get. In the two months of this langar sewa, Rumy offered oxygen and concentrator support to about 14,000 people.
Amidst the spine-chilling memories of the second wave, this is one story that will remain with many of us. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”