Kolkata: Their shadowy figures on motorbikes have become quite commonplace in the metropolis of Kolkata - and it’s suburbs - ever since the second wave of COVID-19 hit home sometime in early April. While one of them is riding the bike, the other is precariously balancing an Oxygen cylinder while riding pillion in the odd hours of the day as they try to locate the next crisis-hit home who had called their helpline a while back.
Meet the ‘Red Volunteers,’ members of the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who have earned wholehearted applause and blessings from a city which had been reeling under the onslaught of the pandemic for most of the last two months. The bitter, high decibel Assembly elections which had the state of West Bengal in thrall till May 2 didn’t help in particular - as experts said the public meetings, polling had led to a scary 40% hike in positivity rate during this period. The election results showed that for the first time since India’s independence, the party had drawn a blank - but there was no let-up in this volunteer group’s effort to lend a helping hand to families in desperate need of oxygen, a bed for a critical patient or medicines.
The CPI(M), which had always prided on it’s cadre base when they ruled the state, moblised their youth units at the district level ever since the nationwide lockdown was imposed in India with the onset of the pandemic in March last year. ‘‘A year ago, there wasn’t such a scarcity of oxygen. Our job was then mainly arranging food and medicines. This time, the cry for oxygen and hospital beds is alarming. This is why the nature of our work has changed,’’ said Srijan Bhattacharya, the state secretary of Student Federation of India (SFI).
Surely, the name Red Volunteers was coined to flag the brand of the party? ‘‘As far as I remember, the name Red Volunteers was suggested by our leader Shamik Lahiri. In a year, the network has grown so wide that I won’t be able to tell you how many teams are working at the moment,’’ said Bhattacharya, who lost the elections from the contentious seat of Singur - the constituency where Nano complex of Tatas failed to take off.
The Red Volunteers Facebook Group shows a membership of 75,000 members as of July last year - and it must have only increased manifold in the past 10 months - while they handle around 3000 distress calls in a day in these troubled times.
The unprecedented health emergency has, almost organically, forged an invisible human chain to fight it out the menace in the City of Joy - and these braveheart volunteers are not alone in this. If someone like Sourav Ganguly, the ‘Dada’ of Indian cricket is at one end of the spectrum, the Who’s Who of the regional film and music industry to some of the biggest local entreprenuers are doing their bit to provide some logistical support in their own way to an already overworked and fragile healthcare system.
Ganguly, who had sporadically stepped out during the first wave to supply food grains or grocery to charitable organisations, decided to address the most critical need of the hour - oxygen supply. A wing of his office Willow Towers adjacent to his residence is a hub of activity now to provide oxygen concentrators to small hospitals and NGOs with his childhood friend Sanjoy Das coordinating the entire operations.
The lack of hospital beds have made the role of ‘safe homes,’ where Covid positive patients with mild symptoms can come in and receive the initial medical attention and oxygen suply till a bed is arranged. The biggest of such facilities have come up with a 25-bed facility, set up by Artists’ Form, the official respresentative body of the industry and named ‘Soumitra,’ the threspian who passed away late last year due to Covid-related complications.
While the initiative by Artists’ Forum is meant to cater to their members only, Tollywood A-lister Jisshu Sengupta has joined hands with music director Indradip Dasgupta to set up one for the public while the likes of Parambrata Chatterjee, Riddhi Sen alongwith singer and music composer Anupam Roy have formed their group ‘Citizens’ Response’ to set up two of them in different parts of the city.
Deb Adhikari, one of the leading men in Bengali cinema and a Trinamool Congress MP, may not be exactly a Sonu Sood but has been constantly throwing in his resources for over an year now - be it chartering flights to bring back stranded Indians from the UAE, rushing medical aid or organising a network to distribute food cooked in his fancy restaurant, ‘Tolly Tales,’ closed to public for a while now.
In these frenzied times, often a verified phone number or leads - be it for oxygen, bed, medicines, groceries or even home cooked food for entre isolated families who can’t step out plays a very crucial role. Srijit Mukherjee, a National award-winning director and a prolific one at the best of times, has decided to shelve everything and devote several hours a day (and nights) on his social media handles - amplifying SoS calls of emergency, phone numbers on his Facebook wall and twitter - often verifying them himself. Joining hands in the challenge is someone like Swastika Mukherjee, a Bengali actor who has carved a niche for herself in Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film ‘Dil Bechara’ or the award-winning web series ‘Patal Lok.’
The list is simply endless, but it will be incomplete if noted singer Lopamudra Mitra is left unmentioned. The subject of mental health is a huge one during these times and Mitra and her husband and composer Joy Sarkar has launched an unique initiative to address this - sharing their phone numbers in public and asking the Covid patients to call them up for a little chat, cheer and some music to ward off any form of negativity.