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Volunteer group connects helpers with helpless



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By Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, May 21: A request pings up on the COVID Connect Nepal Viber group: “In urgent need of hospital bed with ventilator.” Less than a minute later, another request: “Patient in critical need of ICU bed.” A few moments later, yet another ping: “Ventilator. A very critical case.”
On social media too, a never-ending stream of requests, desperate pleas for hospital beds, oxygen and transport, a significant number of them directed towards the handle COVID Connect Nepal.
A 24-hour group run by more than 210 volunteers from all over Nepal, COVID Connect Nepal (CCN) has become a crucial mediator during this second wave of COVID-19 in the country, helping connect people in need of life-saving facilities with institutions and groups that can provide them with that. After peaking in October last year, the number of daily infections had steadily been falling in Nepal and by March, it had plateaued around 150. People believed the worst was behind them and life started to return to its pre-pandemic stage. But 24-year-old Suraj Raj Pandey and his peers knew this was too much too soon. They had been closely following the situation next door and it did not look good.
“While Nepal was rushing to return to normalcy, India had once again begun recording thousands of cases per day and the death toll was rising alarmingly,” Pandey said. “Because of our open border and unmonitored migration and to and from India, we knew it was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the contagion would once again spread to Nepal.”
This frightened Pandey and his friends because if India, with all its size and resources, could not control the coronavirus, how would Nepal fare? So, eight of them, including Pandey, came together as founding members to initiate CCN.
Bringing their knowledge and experience from various backgrounds including technology, public health and marketing, the eight , in their words, “connect assistance providers with seekers and share credible data about the developing situation of COVID-19 in the country.”
“As ordinary citizens, we could not expand the bed capacity of hospitals nor could we manage the oxygen supply. But what we could do is give accurate information about where those things are,” CCN stated. “We saw that people were rushing to one place while the services were in another, which was also the situation in India. CCN is an initiative to end that. We tell people where the resources they need are and help them reach there.”
People can post their requests for help through CCN’s website https://covidconnectnp.org/ which is available in both Nepali and English, or from their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. They can also call the three hotline numbers 9843389412, 9813311032 and 9869397169. As of the time of writing this report, COVID Connect had 466 live bed requests, 325 live oxygen requests and seven vehicle requests – almost all urgent.
Started on April 26, in less than a month CCN has received over 1,300 bed requests and solved more than 820 of them, over 590 oxygen requests and solved more than 230 and over 54 vehicle requests and solved 40. From the data provided on its website, it appears that CCN manages to address 57 per cent of the requests it receives.
Padma, 23, is one such person whose request CCN solved. She tested positive along with her brother, sister-in-law and father on May 1. On May 7, her father complained
of chest pain and breathing difficulties and fainted twice.
Frantic, Padma, who only asked to be identified by her first name to protect her privacy, called the government’s numbers but they were all busy. She got through once but the operator referred her to another number which was unreachable. With her father’s condition worsening by the minute, she tweeted to COVID Connect Nepal. Before the day was over, Padma was able to find an ICU bed for her dad with CCN’s help.
“COVID Connect helped save my father’s life,” she said.
But sometimes, just guiding the patients to treatment options is not enough. Hospital stays are expensive and not everyone can pay. In such cases, CCN connects economically disadvantaged patients with donors. “We are a volunteer group and not a registered organisation. So, we do not collect donations. However, we connect those in need with those who can donate and facilitate the process,” Pandey said.
CCN also collaborates with the non-profit organisation Feed the Hungry Nepal to provide free meals to those who have lost their livelihoods because of the COVID-induced restrictions.
But whatever the work, CCN’s main objective is to assist the government in the fight against the coronavirus. It has held multiple meetings with the COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) and is advocating for creating an integrated COVID command centre.
“The CCMC has done a lot of work but it is constrained by procedural limitations. Our laws and regulations are also inadequate – Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli himself called for the timely amendment to the Infectious Disease Act. We have also seen that our bureaucracy, as in India, isn’t equipped to handle large scale crises like the current pandemic. CCN, with its nationwide network and services, seeks to support the government and complement its efforts,” Pandey added.
COVID Connect believes that the system it has set up can also be used for other disasters like floods, landslides and earthquakes in the future. “Once the pandemic is over, we would like to hand over the system to the government and, if required, can train officers to handle and expand it too based on their needs,” Pandey shared with The Rising Nepal.
For now though, its full focus is on the virus outbreak and trying to save as many lives as possible.
Ping goes the Viber group. “A patient in Ranibari is in immediate need of an ICU bed.”