Darjeeling: Ryan Sangay Gelek is a nine-year-old from Darjeeling. And like many his age, Ryan too has a piggy bank to save whatever he can. But unlike other children, he won’t be using his money to buy his favorite toy or, as is common these days, video games. “I want to help people. I have collected some money in my piggy bank. I want to donate all that I have for COVID-19. I have Rs. 9,500,” Ryan said in a touching message. 

Ryan’s actions, however, are not a standalone act. His act is, in fact, an apt reflection on how Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills, battled every possible odds to script a success story in the battle against COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite being one of the most famous, if not the most famous hill station of India, Darjeeling has only six ventilators catering to over 1.5 lakh residents. 

“Even the basic health infrastructure is missing in the Hills. Darjeeling does not have a single CT Scan machine in any of the government or private facilities,” said Darjeeling resident Smriti Philip.

The CT Scan is an important diagnostic tool to study the percentage of lung damage in a COVID-19 patient. It does not take a medical expert, then, to assess that against a global pandemic, the residents were the proverbial sitting ducks. They had only each other to trust and support. 

“Darjeeling has always been resilient. We are a very close-knit society. During a crisis we are more dependent on each other than the government,” Philip added.

It is important to note that the Hills of Darjeeling have always played a proactive role in tiding through big and small calamities like earthquakes, landslides and the famous political strifes that go back decades. The pandemic, while certainly a much bigger challenge, was no different. The community knows how to stick together. 

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Citizens, NGOs, civil organisations and even political parties all come together to save the Hills. 

When the second wave struck India and terrifying images death and disease flashed across screens, the citizens of Darjeeling decided to spring into action.

“We could not afford to sit back and cry over the lack of infrastructure. We had to do something to prevent the horrors from unfolding in the Hills too. The citizens’ movement was resurrected. This was the best way forward,” added Philip, who is also a part of the Darjeeling Initiative (DI), a citizens’ movement.

It was time for action. “The keyword to success is collaboration,” said Vikram Rai of Vik Run Foundation. 

NGOs, schools, associations, individuals, as well as politicians of Darjeeling formed working groups to procure oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, medicines and PPE kits

NGOs, schools, associations, individuals, as well as politicians formed working groups to procure oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, medicines, PPE kits and to distribute them among patients, as well as donating concentrators to government and private hospitals to tide over the impending crisis. 

“It was a war-like situation. Everyone had to come forward to save the Hills. Unity remains the main weapon in war against COVID-19,” Ajoy Edward, proprietor of the iconic Glenary’s, told EastMojo

Edward Foundation (run by the family of Glenary’s proprietors), along with Darjeeling Initiative and others, came up with project CARE (Critical Aid Response) to effectively respond to the spread of disease in the quaint hill town.

Volunteers from all sections of the society worked round-the-clock to provide oxygen cylinders, concentrators, sanitising machines, oximeters, digital thermometers, PPE suits, medicines and nutrition to patients in homes, safe houses as well as at hospitals and nursing homes. 

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All COVID-related services, including teleconferencing with doctors and oxygen support, were provided. 

“By the end of July, we could support more than 30,000 families in one way or another. Forty-nine concentrators and 13 oxygen cylinders were pressed into service. We also provided oxygen support to 318 patients till end-July with a recovery rate of 90%,” Edward said.

The Vik Run Foundation started an oxygen bank with 45 cylinders along with providing free ambulance services to isolation centres and dedicated COVID hospitals, both in town and rural areas. 

“As most of the ambulance drivers, even the ones working in government hospitals, are hired on contractual basis, we provided health and COVID insurance for them,” Rai told EastMojo.

Rural areas worst affected in second wave

It takes more than seven hours to reach Siliguri and refill an oxygen cylinder. It takes many more hours to carry the same cylinder to far-flung villages across difficult terrain. During the monsoons, roads get blocked by landslides and the supply of life-saving oxygen gets cut off.

“We concentrated on rural areas where facilities are hard to come by and logistics are difficult to manage,” Supreet Raj Pradhan of the Darjeeling Football Society (DFS) told EastMojo.

Oxygen cylinders were provided to patients at Milling, Pulungdung, Rishihaat Tea Estate and Maneybhanjang Public Health Centre in Kalimpong, along with localities in and around Darjeeling town. With scarce testing facilities in rural areas, the DFS also provided Rapid Antigen Test kits for COVID testing.

How Hill schools pitched in

Darjeeling, from the days of the British Raj, has been famous for its world-famous schools. And in the hour of crisis, the educational institutes threw open their gates. 

With the fear of resources getting exhausted in hospitals owing to the surge in numbers of COVID positive cases, the primary focus was to come up with safe homes or isolation centres to complement the hospitals. Here the asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients could be housed, thereby utilising hospital beds for critical patients.

St. Joseph’s School, Darjeeling

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The Jesuits of Darjeeling gave a 50-bedded isolation centre at the St. Joseph’s College to the district administration. 

“We decided on the name ‘Sursum Corda’ Isolation Centre, which means ‘Lift your heart’ in Latin. It is also the school and college motto. We decided that we should give back to society through our service,” Father Stanley Varghese, Rector, St. Joseph’s School, told EastMojo.

The 50-bedded isolation centre took in males with mild symptoms. The ‘Sursum Corda Covid-19 Care & Relief’ included teleconsultation with doctors; the supply of medicines and medical equipment along with providing nutritional supplements and food for free.

The alumni associations of the schools have been proactive in supporting these projects. The St. Joseph’s school and college alumni associations provided the necessary logistical support to the isolation centre. 

“Along with the alumni association, there have been alumni batches that got together and provided financial assistance as well as oxygen concentrators and cylinders to fight COVID,” Anil Gupta of the Darjeeling North Point School Alumni Association told EastMojo

“The safe home functioned for 61 days, helping 53 inmates to complete recovery,” added the Rector.

Ex-students of boarding schools like St. Paul’s School provided financial support to projects like CARE. 

The world-famous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) housed a 48-bedded isolation centre for both males and females in the premises since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. 

The Sursum Corda Isolation Centre, a 50-bedded facility at St. Joseph’s College

“In total, there were around 150 persons isolated or quarantined. In the second wave alone, around 25 patients were isolated and recovered. 53 Air Force personnel were also quarantined. All facilities provided were free of cost,” Group Captain Jai Kishan, Principal, HMI, told EastMojo.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the Foreign Secretary of India and Prem Bhandari of Jaipur Foot donated a ventilator to the Sursum Corda Covid Center. The ventilator was procured from Mt. Senai Hospital, New York, for Rs 32 lakh.

The Jesuit Fathers, in turn, donated the ventilator to the Darjeeling District Hospital so that “larger numbers from the underprivileged strata can be served,” Father Varghese said.

Citizens offer specialized services

Vik Run Foundation, which supports road runners, tied up with the Headmasters’ Association of Darjeeling to run the Siksha Sahara programme, providing education support to children from the low-income group families affected by COVID.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) housed a 48-bedded isolation centre for both males and females at the premises

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“There are many children who have lost their parents to COVID-19. Many have exhausted their means in the way of COVID-19 treatment in private nursing homes. Livelihoods have been lost to the pandemic and lockdowns. These children are finding it very difficult to continue with their studies. We want to support the education of such children,” Dr Milan Tamang, Headmaster of RKSP School, Darjeeling, told EastMojo.

The professionals joined in, providing specialised services to the community. While some provided counselling for mental health, others provided free legal aid. 

“The unnatural situation has taken a toll on mental health and well being. Many are suffering from trauma, panic attacks and depression. It is a strong social system and support that will help us tide over the crisis,” said Gyanendra Rai, Counsellor, Tata Institute of Social Science. 

Rai, who hails from Darjeeling, has been providing free tele-counselling service to people suffering from mental trauma.

Children, especially girl children are highly vulnerable in the time of the pandemic. They are vulnerable to human trafficking and child labour. As livelihoods are being lost owing to the lockdowns, kids are being forced to sell vegetables, tea and knickknacks on the streets. 

 “We are keeping a close tab on the situation. Many children are indulging in group studies elsewhere as they do not have cell phones for online classes. We have asked parents to closely monitor where the children are going for group studies; what time they are going out from their homes; what time they are returning,” Anuja Ghalay of the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation told EastMojo.

Darjeeling’s global connect

People working in other parts of the country and abroad with roots in Darjeeling have been sending in funds to support the cause. These funds have been used to buy equipment and other items. Along with supporting the local communities, there have been donations made to Government facilities too.

The Darjeeling Dubai Core Group, in association with Mission Oxygen India, recently donated 50 oxygen concentrators, costing around Rs 40 lakh to the Rotary Club of Darjeeling Himalayas. 

The concentrators were handed over to Government facilities, including 18 to Darjeeling Government hospital, 20 to the Triveni Covid Hospital, 5 to Block Primary Health Centre in Mirik and 5 to BPHC, Pedong, Kalimpong along with 2 to the Sursum Corda Isolation Centre (private.) 

“Mission Oxygen, the Darjeeling Dubai Core Group in association with the Rotary Club of Darjeeling Himalayas donated oxygen concentrators to hospitals. These concentrators are a major boost to our existing infrastructure in battling COVID. We are immensely grateful for the support,” said Dr Subasish Chanda, Superintendent, Darjeeling Government Hospital.

With relentless efforts of its citizens, Darjeeling was largely saved from the horrors of the second wave of COVID-19 that devastated many states across India.

Rotary club donating oxygen concentrators to the Darjeeling Government Hospital

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“We have limited infrastructure. Without ventilators and CT Scan machines for diagnosis, we have been working round the clock for the past two years to save lives. We have saved the maximum number of lives. The nurses have battled exceptional odds. Despite risking their lives and lives of their family members along with battling the stigma and fear surrounding the disease, they did not for once deter from giving their best,” said Dr Plaban Das of the Darjeeling Dooars Medical Association popular as Planters’ Nursing Home.

Not to be left behind, the politicians have also joined in the battle. They have taken up sanitization chores; providing logistic support and forming pressure groups keeping a tab on Government policies, infrastructure and other important components.

Present Situation

A sentinel survey conducted by the West Bengal Government in 15 districts in July reported an alarming rate of COVID-19 infections in three districts — Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and East Midnapore. While the overall infection rate in West Bengal remains around 1.58 percent, the district of Darjeeling has recorded a high of 7.7 percent.

“The first wave was comparatively mild as compared to the second wave. The first wave had peaked in September 2020 and we used to get around 15 cases daily during the peak. The second wave peaked from early May 2021 to mid May 2021 with 25 to 30 cases admitted daily,” said Dr. Subasish Chanda, Superintendent, Darjeeling District Government Hospital.

The Hospital has a 50-bedded COVID ward with 6 ventilators catering to the Darjeeling subdivision, with a population of about 3.5 lakh. 

According to data available with the Darjeeling district administration, positive cases started increasing in Darjeeling district from April 2021 during the second wave. Around April 19, the district was recording around 150 cases per day.

The number shot up to 408 on May 1 and 494 on May 15. By the end of June, Darjeeling district was recording an average of 134 fresh cases a day, which dipped to about 69 cases per day by July 15, which came down to an average of 50 cases a day by August 10. 

“During the second wave peak, we saw an average of 4 to 5 deaths a day in the COVID ward of the Darjeeling hospital,” Dr Chanda said. On August 13, the number of COVID patients at the Darjeeling District Hospital was 18.

According to the 2011 Census figures, the district has a population of about 18.5 lakh.

The Liver Foundation of West Bengal, supported by Covid Care Network, had vaccinated 2,265 beneficiaries till the end of July.

Focus area: Vaccination

“The Government is providing vaccination but we are privately trying to make vaccination more accessible, especially to the elderly, differently-abled and in far-flung areas,” said Smriti Philip.

The Liver Foundation of West Bengal, supported by Covid Care Network, had vaccinated 2,265 beneficiaries till the end of July.

“We are trying to adopt entire villages for vaccination. Having tied up with Lali Guras, an NGO, we have vaccinated 130 persons in the age group of 18 to 45. In the next phase, our goal is to vaccinate 300. We are collecting funds for this,” said Supreet Raj Pradhan of the Darjeeling Football Society.

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