Free Oxygen Drive-Throughs Are Popping Up in India’s Sikh Temples
Sikh temples or gurdwaras usually offer a free service known as food langars. Volunteers are now dishing out oxygen instead.
By Ahmer Khan
NEW DELHI, India – Instead of the usual throng of worshipers at the Sikh temple in India’s capital, there were about 20 volunteers ready to provide free oxygen to the dozens of people who needed it.
India continues to break its own record of the country worst-impacted by COVID-19. As the government tracked more than 414,000 people infected and 3,923 lives taken by the virus in the last 24 hours, outside the Sikh temple Damdama scores of vehicles, including cars, rickshaws, and two-wheelers lined up to receive oxygen.
Devender Singh, an 18-year-old volunteer at the Sikh temple or gurdwara, moved quickly. He kept an eye on the people who needed help urgently and checked their oxygen levels himself.
Manpreet Kaur, a COVID-19 patient, arrived in her son’s rickshaw gasping for oxygen. She was promptly provided oxygen by the gurdwara volunteers until her oxygen stabilised to 97. Afterwards, her son prayed outside the temple and thanked the volunteers for their help.
“We are here to serve people who need help. It’s been a week since I joined this volunteer group,” Devender Singh told VICE World News. He starts his day at 11 a.m. and works until 8 p.m..
Devender Singh said he does not put his hope in the government. “The government is wasting money and resources on elections and things like the Indian Cricket League. They don’t know how many people are dying. Four people have died here in front of my eyes because their oxygen level was so low that even we couldn’t help them. It’s devastating,” Devender Singh said.
Among those waiting in the queue, was a woman, in her fifties. She was critically ill, her oxygen level under 35, and she was told to rush to a hospital as she needed a ventilator.
There are about 20 volunteers like Singh who fearlessly come into contact with COVID-19 patients with as many safety precautions as they can.
Mohammad Shahnawaz was waiting in a rickshaw for oxygen for his brother Mohammad Aijaz. “We went to three hospitals but they all turned us away and now we came here. These people are doing a great service to humanity. They are no less than God to us right now. We have a useless government,” Shahnawaz said.
Gurdwaras in and around Delhi usually offer a free food service known as langars. And the volunteers that run the food langars switched over to providing oxygen instead. Amid the most deadly COVID-19 wave that has infected over 21 million people across India, there is a huge scarcity of oxygen.
At another gurdwara, Nirmal Deep Singh, a 39-year-old businessman was also helping out. “Since morning we have given oxygen to around 50-60 and still, people are coming. We only give oxygen to those who need it on the spot. We have been doing this work for the past 7-8 days,” he told VICE World News.
Nirmal, like others, is disappointed at the local and central government’s response to the crisis. “Our volunteers stand in line for hours to get a cylinder refilled and many times they have to go outside Delhi to get oxygen cylinders refilled. We try to source it from wherever it’s available,” Nirmal told VICE World News, adding that their volunteers cross state borders looking to refill oxygen in the neighbouring states of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Haryana.
There are non-profits helping the gurdwara langars with oxygen supplies and resources as well. Ajit Singh, 52, founder of the non-profit organisation Hum Chahkar Govindke said, “Some volunteers work at nights and some in the day to refill oxygen cylinders from wherever we can. It’s big trouble for us but we are determined to serve. Our Gurunanak (the founder of the Sikh religion) has said humans are all the same be it Muslims, Hindus, Christians and we have to follow the same. This ‘oxygen langar’ will continue until things get better.”
The last week, the gurdwaras provided oxygen to about 100 people a day.
“We have left our families behind and come here daily to help people in whatever small way we can. Our family is worried and think coming here is suicidal. But we see people dying every day in hospitals and even on the roadside.” Ajit told VICE World News. He added, “We have to die one day and if it could be in our home or here, while serving people, I would prefer the latter.”
This story first appeared on Vice