New Delhi: Usually, Ansar Khan spends his days among the dead, ferrying the bodies of patients who succumbed to the coronavirus to their preferred resting place. The days are long, arduous, and often lonely. But on 13 August, he was offered a moment’s break — and a gift of life — when his daughter was born.
“I was at the mortuary when I got a call from the doctors. My wife had gone into sudden labour, and they needed to conduct an emergency cesarean operation. They needed my signature first,” 25-year-old Ansar says.
He rushed to the hospital, acutely aware that his 20-year-old wife, Ghazia, could be in great danger if he didn’t get there on time. He arrived, signed the papers, and when his daughter was born, saw her through a window. Just as quickly, he packed up and left.
“I nearly cried. But I couldn’t stay. I had to go back to the mortuary. Showing up for my work is also a matter of life and death,” he says.
Ansar drives an ambulance for Covid-19 patients, for a minimum of 12 hours a day, seven days a week. When he started work in April, he weighed 82 kg. Now he’s down to 71. For five months, he hasn’t had the opportunity for a full day’s rest yet, and doesn’t expect one anytime soon either.
“Not many people are willing to come forward to do this job. But it has to get done. A lot is riding on our shoulders, we cannot just stop one day,” he says.
The survival instinct
Walking the tightrope between life and death is something ambulance drivers pick up quickly on the job. They must arrive in time to take patients to the hospital before their conditions deteriorate. Then, they must transport bodies from the mortuary to a crematorium or cemetery just as swiftly, so as to not upset grieving families.
But between these two jobs, drivers perform a host of other functions that are often overlooked, particularly during the pandemic. Jittery patients are given counsel and families who seek it are given advice on how to stay cautious of the virus.
Mohsin Khan, who has been an ambulance driver for 10 years, says more than anything else, the pandemic has accentuated the instinct of survival like never before.
“Families are afraid of their dead kin, and don’t even want to come close to the bodies. It breaks my heart,” says Mohsin, running his hands through shoulder-length hair. “They are so afraid of catching the virus, despite the protection of PPE, distance, and every other precaution. I’ve had to take pictures of the body and then show my phone to the families so they can identify it.”
Mohsin claims to have driven the country’s second and Delhi’s first Covid-19 victim — a 68-year-old woman who tested positive after her son returned from Europe — to the crematorium on 14 March. Since then, he says, “I must have taken at least 500 bodies.”
So far, India has seen 49.3 lakh infections and 80,776 deaths, of which 4,770 have been in Delhi.
When cases began to soar and bodies piled up, ambulance drivers like Mohsin and Ansar — who work at the 2,000-bed Lok Nayak Jaiprakash Hospital (LNJP) in Delhi — were forced to work up to 18 hours a day.
India has at least 25,450 state-run ambulances, and 39,259 private vehicles registered for emergency services, as of June 2019. This is significantly higher than the 13,234 figure required to meet the WHO’s standards of at least one ambulance per one lakh population.
Delhi has over 200 government-run ambulances, 163 of which were roped in for Covid duty. Despite meeting international standards, the surge in cases caused a shortage in the city. As a result, ambulance drivers have been pushed to take on excess workloads and — in the case of Covid — trauma.
Ansar had no experience driving an ambulance, having lost his job driving a shared taxi due to the lockdown. The experience was doubly traumatic for him, especially during the months of May and June when hearse vans were stuffed with 6-7 bodies at a time.
“I didn’t sleep in those days. I still have nightmares of driving the van from the mortuary to the cemetery, putting bodies in the van,” he says. The PPE kit and his anxiety over handling Covid patients led him to almost pass out. He didn’t tell his wife, pregnant at the time, that he was working as an ambulance driver until much later.
“When I nearly fainted I decided that if I had to do the job, I couldn’t be scared. I’ve learned how to keep patients calm when they’re in the van with me. I’ve learned how to give patient’s families a little comfort when they are worried or grieving, but I keep my interactions to a minimum,” he says.
For other drivers, like Gaurav Gupta who now manages a private ambulance service in the city, duty was no less harrowing.
Gaurav was one of the first few drivers to volunteer his services along with Mohsin when Covid struck the city. One day in May, when hospitals struggled to accommodate patients and Delhi’s health infrastructure seemed like it was going to unravel due to the surging Covid tally, Gaurav went to pick up a sick patient, who greeted him with a smile. By the time he reached the hospital, the patient was dead.
“I opened the doors and saw that he had taken off his oxygen on the way. I had no idea because I was driving,” says Gaurav. “It was a matter of just 15 minutes. It haunted me for days.”
As for the onslaught of death and illness that ambulance drivers must face every day, Mohsin laughs and says he’s found the perfect antidote: “A bottle of beer at the end of the day.”
Despite working overtime and putting their lives at considerable risk, ambulance drivers have worked without a pay raise. Both private ambulance drivers and the government-run CATS ambulance drivers are paid Rs 15,000 per month in Delhi, regardless of the hours they work or the market conditions, according to the three drivers.
The line of work also led to discrimination towards the drivers in the initial months of the lockdown.
“My neighbours would tell me to stay away because I would infect everyone. It got so bad that one day I rounded everyone up and gave them a good shouting. They stopped harassing me after that,” said Gaurav.
Amid difficult working conditions, hostile neighbours, long, lonely hours and the singular experience of carrying the dead, Gaurav, Mohsin, and Ansar have found solace in each other’s company, apparent in how they address each other.
“Did you just call him Gaurav? His name is Sher Singh. He’s the strongest man I know,” says Mohsin, putting an arm around Gaurav. Ansar calls Mohsin his “bhaijaan”, or dearest brother, explaining, “He’s like a brother to me because of how much support he has given me. He is a good person.”
The six months of the pandemic have left a deep impression on how the three view life and death.
“Every time someone is burned or buried, I feel like a part of me has gone with them. I feel like this will be me one day. It always feels like that even though I’ve been to hundreds of funerals,” says Ansar. “Every day is a reminder that life is fleeting, and that we are blessed with it.”
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