In Bhopal, Police Action Against Auto-Ambulance May Have Cost COVID Patient His Life

Javed Khan has been running a free service for patients desperate for help. On May 1, he was responding to one such SOS call when the police detained him for violating the lockdown and 'illegally transporting' oxygen.

Javed Khan, 34, was driving his auto-ambulance to pick up a COVID-19 patient – 57-year-old Madan Singh – from Ayushman Hospital to take him to Narmada Hospital in Bhopal when the police stopped him at a barricade. They did not allow him to proceed, citing COVID-19 restrictions. The police did not budge even as Khan tried to reason with them that he was only ferrying COVID-19 patients in his autorickshaw. Instead, he was detained and held for two hours.

On Saturday, Khan had received a frantic call from Yogini Thakur, Singh’s daughter, after she was unable to book a normal ambulance. Singh had been admitted to Ayushman Hospital two days earlier, after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, but needed to be transferred for treatment. “We had to struggle to find a bed,” Thakur said.

The police action proved fatal; nobody came to pick Singh up and after hours of waiting, he died at Ayushman Hospital.

“The police held me for two hours even as I told them that I have to pick up a critical patient,” Khan said. Even pleas from Singh’s wife, who visited the police station to seek Khan’s release, did not move the police, Khan continued. “But when they eventually let me go, the patient’s condition had worsened and doctors said there was no point in shifting him then.”

Police even filed an FIR against Khan, alleging that he violated COVID-19 norms. “We held him for flouting Section 144 norms and filed an FIR under Section 188; he was later released and provided a special pass when we learnt of his social services,” the station house officer at Chola Mandir police station, where Khan was detained, told The Wire.

Khan, however, expressed dismay at the police’s behaviour. “How can they just detain me like that? The road was barricaded and they did not allow me to pass. I told them I was on my way to hospital and showed them the oxygen cylinder. On seeing the cylinder they began accusing me of illegally transporting cylinders,” said Khan, who has been relentlessly ferrying COVID-19 patients in his autorickshaw-ambulance in Bhopal for the past 20 days.

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The Wire approached Inspector General of Police, Bhopal A. Sai Manohar to ask him whether the department will investigate the matter. He responded, saying, “I think the Bhopal Police have clarified already.” He shared a statement in Hindi which accuses Khan of removing barricades in violation of the restriction order due to which he was booked under Section 188 and later released. “He was neither arrested nor was the oxygen cylinder in his auto seized. There is no police case against Javed,” reads the statement, adding that Javed is being issued a special pass for service so that he does not face any problems.

Many have hailed Khan as a ‘hero’ and admired him for his selfless initiative.

In early April, when the COVID-19 situation in Bhopal started worsening, Khan felt that the city was facing a shortage of ambulances as critical cases surged. He was moved by the painful visuals and news stories on TV showing poor patients unable to afford an ambulance. He decided to turn his autorickshaw into a free ambulance for COVID-19 patients. His auto is equipped with an oxygen cylinder, PPE kit, sanitiser and also an oximeter.

Khan, who normally earned Rs 200-300 per day, has limited financial resources. To obtain an oxygen cylinder, he sold his wife’s necklace for Rs 5,000. Now he is using his savings for refuelling. For now, he has decided to halt the monthly instalments he would make towards repaying his vehicle loan.

Khan has made his contact number available on social media. He receives around 5-6 calls a day for the past 20 days, he said, adding that he doesn’t accept payment from anyone.

“Javed bhai is very quick with help,” said Naman Rai, who has in the last ten days contacted Khan three times. On Monday, he said, Khan ferried an aged mother of a vegetable vendor to the hospital while her oxygen levels were steadily dropping. “The family is very poor, when I came to know they needed an ambulance, I contacted Javed since his services are free. He reached the location within 10-12 minutes,” Rai recalled. In another instance, Khan, on call from Rai, transported an oxygen cylinder from Jahangirabad locality needed for a COVID-19 patient who was gasping for breath in Chunabhatti area of the city.

Bhopal on Monday reported 1,669 new COVID-19 cases, taking the total tally reported in the city since the beginning of the pandemic to 94,803. The city officially reported 12 deaths on Monday.

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Official numbers belie the data from crematorium and graveyards. A report surveying two cremation grounds in Bhopal noted that a total of 187 bodies were cremated at the two sites under COIVD-19 protocols on one day, while the official COVID-19 death toll remained at five. Another report noted that on April 10, 11 and 12, 56, 68 and 59 bodies were cremated in the city, while the official bulletin stated only 24, 24 and 37 COVID-19 deaths respectively, across the entire state.

Several people across the country – including Muslim organisations and individuals – have stepped up to provide succour to the needy amidst the unprecedented health crisis, even as the government response appears to flounder. They are supplying medical aid and oxygen cylinders; opening up mosques to serve as isolation centres; volunteering at hospitals and helping perform people’s last rites.

Some notable examples – from a much longer list – include Pyare Khan, a transporter in the city of Nagpur who donated two tankers of 32 tonnes of oxygen worth Rs 10 million for free to hospitals; Shahnawaz Sheikh who sold his cab to provide oxygen to 250 COVID-19 patients; and welding shops in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh that are now supplying oxygen cylinders.

Rushda Fathima Khan is an independent journalist based in Bangalore.