5 MIN READ
The streets of Kathmandu, once a noisy orchestra of impatient horns, now lay silent. The only sound that pierces the still is the periodic wailing of an ambulance siren as it zooms past.
Dawa Chiring Lapcha races his ambulance through these empty streets, carrying Covid-19 patients to hospitals. He makes at least four ambulance runs a day, risking his own life to save those infected with Covid-19 and in desperate need of help. Despite insistence from his wife and family to quit his job in the face of a deadly pandemic, 38-year-old Lapcha continues undaunted. As the number of Covid-19 cases rise, frontline workers like Lapcha are at a greater risk of contracting the virus. But Lapcha said he feels obligated to help.
“This is my duty, I am compelled to do it,” said Lapcha.
Lapcha has been working as an ambulance driver for Alka Hospital in Lalitpur for the past six years. He was promoted to transport unit in charge at the hospital two years ago, meaning that his duties include not just transporting the sick but also making sure proper precautions are taken by his team of eight ambulance drivers.
“The ambulance team has been divided into two teams of four drivers: one team strictly deals with Covid patients while the other deals with non-infected patients. One of the hospital’s three ambulances is solely dedicated to carrying Covid-19 patients,” said Lapcha.
When Lapcha or one of his team members brings in a patient, they change their clothes then sterilize the vehicle. This process can take at least an hour with the first 20 minutes dedicated to filling the ambulance with a sterilizing gas. It takes about 40 minutes for the gas to sterilize the vehicle, according to Lapcha.
Depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms, Lapcha is accompanied by staff from the hospital emergency room who provide first aid and check the patient’s status as they make their way to the hospital.
“However, in extreme cases where the patient is critically ill, I advise calling 102, the government’s ambulance service hotline, for support. If they are not available, my team will do what it can to assist if the caller is able to keep the patient alive for 10-15 minutes, which is the time it takes for us to arrive,” said Lapcha.
Already, ambulance services are avoiding carrying Covid-19 patients, as Lapcha often gets calls from other service providers to transport patients. There are only a handful of operators willing to provide this vital service at affordable rates; many others are charging excessive rates in light of the growing demand and the high risk, said Lapcha.
“Unlike other ambulances who are said to be charging Rs 6,000 or 7,000 to transport Covid patients, we only charge an additional 500 rupees for Covid patients on top of the standard rate of Rs 1,000 for patients within the Valley,” he said. “The price for patients outside the valley is an additional 60 rupees per kilometer.”
Lapcha has already contracted Covid-19; he was the first person at Alka Hospital to test positive in 2020. It is certain that he contracted the disease while driving patients around.
“At the time, I had to stay in quarantine for 14 days. After returning home, I isolated myself at home for another nine days, living separately from my wife and son,” he said.
This time around, he says he is being more careful.
“I am more alert now. I follow necessary procedures which include wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), mask, face shield, rubber boots, and gloves while transporting patients. I also warn my team of eight drivers about the hardships I faced during the time I was infected and advise them to maintain protocols,” he said.
At home, he takes care to maintain physical distance from his family to avoid spreading the virus. He eats alone in his room and uses a separate bathroom. While Lapcha has received both doses of the Covishield vaccine as a frontline worker, his family are not vaccinated. They continue to insist that he should not leave the house and work such a risky job.
“My wife tells me that it’s better to go hungry than to work in such a risky environment,” he said.
Last year, news had emerged about many health workers resigning due to being overworked and underpaid. The government’s lack of support for frontline workers, who have the highest chance of getting infected, coupled with community stigma and risks to personal health, has resulted in many families demanding that they quit. And despite the critical work that they do, workers like Lapcha — ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, lab technicians, and other support staff — go largely unnoticed and underappreciated.
While individuals like Lapcha are doing what they can to help those in need, little effort can be seen from the government regarding special incentives to mobilize private ambulance operators.
“No benefits or services have been provided by the government for ambulance drivers as of yet. Maybe government health workers receive such benefits but as a private operator, I do not know about any such policy,” said Lapcha.
Private citizens have instead stepped up to assist frontline workers like Lapcha by donating their private vehicles for use in transporting Covid-19 patients to hospitals. Kanchan Chandra Bade, Banepa’s former state minister for industry, in collaboration with Kavre Auto Mechanics, has converted his personal vehicle into an ambulance. In Dang, former national taekwondo player Mohan Sweeker, in collaboration with local activists and autorickshaw drivers, has converted autos into ambulances. Likewise, ASAP car rentals has been providing free transportation to and from hospitals in Kathmandu. Local authorities, like Kathmandu Metropolitan City, have also organized free ambulance services.
Lapcha too provides his services for free to those who cannot afford the ambulance fees.
“If they are unable to pay the fare and properly explain to me their financial problems, I assist them in whatever way I can,” he said.
Aishwarya Baidar Aishwarya Baidar is a fashion blogger and a media studies student at Kathmandu University.
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