As cases keep rising, freelance ambulance drivers continue to serve the needs of people with their limited knowledge
Mohammad Polash, aged approximately 30, is a freelance ambulance driver. In the first week of June, he got an emergency call from a patient's son.
He, along with his helper, Hridoy, rushed to the spot. The patient was an old lady who had breathing problems. They provided her with the oxygen cylinder service.
Then they took her to the emergency department of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). The doctors referred her to the "new building", which was especially built for Covid-19 patients.
That is when Polash and Hridoy realised they had carried a coronavirus-infected patient.
"We are carrying a lot of patients and they do not share their history with us. Most of the time, they hide it if they have any coronavirus symptom. So, it is hard for us to tell whether or not we are carrying Covid-19 patients," said Polash.
But they can do nothing about it as driving ambulance is their only source of income. As freelance drivers, they are paid based on how many trips they have completed.
They said they disinfect their vehicle every time after dropping off a patient, but the patient hiding his or her history is fatal for them, and also for other patients.
It was fortunate for them as they had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) – a habit they had developed since coronavirus became a serious concern in the country. Though the PPE is supposed to be single-use, they cannot afford new ones every day. So, rather than disposing of them, they clean and re-use them.
Polash is a freelance ambulance driver under Bhai Bhai Ambulance Service. Most of the time, when Polash and other drivers like him are driving patients to hospital, they do not get much scope to know the history of the whereabouts of the patients.
But there are drivers who are solely appointed to carry coronavirus patients. Like Polash and Hridoy, there are many more ambulance drivers who are carrying either coronavirus patients or are collecting samples from such patients during this hour of crisis.
According to the Ambulance Malik Kalyan Samity, there are more than 9,500 ambulances altogether in Bangladesh among which 4,000 are operating in Dhaka. Altogether, the sector involves around 14,000 people in the service.
Though they hesitated in the beginning because of stigma, now almost all of them are working in the field. According to the association, they did not receive any professional training due to lack of time and venue. Yet, they are serving the needs of people with the limited knowledge they have got.
As we hail doctors, nurses, physicians and police for being frontline workers, we sometimes forget the fact that these drivers are no less important than other frontline fighters during this pandemic.
But how are they doing at work? Do they have enough PPE? Are they aware of the risk factors of their job? What happens when they get infected?
Dedicated ambulance drivers for coronavirus patients
The Business Standard talked to a few ambulance drivers and came across a young man, Kajal. The 27-year-old and his friend Prodip are dedicated drivers for carrying coronavirus patients to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).
They are provided with PPE regularly, and incinerate the used ones after duty. Yet, both of them were infected with the virus. They do not have any clue as to how it happened.
While Prodip has recovered, Kajal is still spending his days in the isolation room for drivers on the hospital premises. He was glad to talk to this correspondent as he spends most of his time alone.
"Our risk has reduced after the coronavirus unit was introduced in the hospital. Now patients can come and get admitted directly to the unit. In the beginning, we had to carry a lot of coronavirus patients to Kurmitola hospital," said Kajal.
He shared how he had worked as a helper since his childhood and learned to drive by the age of 18. With a family of six people dependent on him, he was looking for a fixed income and finally joined DMCH in last September. He started to enjoy the better days of his life until coronavirus broke out and he was handed over the duty of carrying Covid-19 patients.
He is not aware of the selection process that landed the responsibility on his shoulder. Nor does he have any complaint against it. "What kind of human being am I if I abandon someone in times of crisis?"
As Kajal is exposed to the virus, he has sent his family to village in order as part of precautionary measures. Now, he is spending his days alone in the isolation room.
"I should admit that friends and colleagues here are taking as much care of me as possible. They serve me food three times a day. Sometimes, they bring fruits for me and sit by the window to talk to my and give me company," said Kajal.
After recovery, he would like to join the same duty as before.
Like Kajal, Nayemul Islam Mizan drives coronavirus patients from Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital to Mugda Medical College Hospital. Two days ago, he handled a critical patient without wearing a face guard. Now, he is in quarantine but has not shown any symptom yet.
"It was one of the sisters of our hospital. I became emotional after watching her condition and became absent-minded," he said.
He thinks he is living a healthy life, and is fit by the grace of Allah as he is helping the ailing people. Though he has a family that includes aged parents and two children living with him, he feels it does not suit them to be afraid of the virus or death.
Md Badal Madbor, general secretary of the Ambulance Malik Kalyan Samity, said ambulances of private hospitals were not used in the beginning as those did not have permission to carry coronavirus patients.
"But now, we are using their ambulances. If we could not use those, ambulances would have become scarce," he said.
Asked whether the government plans to expand workforce in this sector, he said he had not heard of anything like that. But he said the government had not acknowledged the contribution of ambulance drivers at all.
"PPE provided to our drivers come from different private and voluntary organisations. The government did not do anything to ensure our safety," said Badol.
He said that 200-250 drivers are suffering from Covid-19 right now.
"We are lucky that no one has died yet. If anyone dies, it will be hard to convince other drivers to work in this field as there is no security and no incentive has been declared for us," he added.