On Sunday, Maria Mehra, a 56-year-old COVID-19 patient, was gasping for breath at her home in Mumbai. Her oxygen level had dropped to 76 and she needed immediate hospitalisation.
But there were no beds available, given the record number of infections across the metropolis over the past several weeks.
Her desperate family tried frantically to arrange a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder for her but couldn’t find one until Maria’s brother-in-law Jackson Quadras, 47, reached out to Shahnawaz Shahalam Sheikh.
Sheikh provided them with an oxygen cylinder around midnight.
Hours later, Quadras secured a hospital bed in Malad, a suburb in north Mumbai, for Maria but remains thankful to Sheikh whose timely intervention helped her.
“Shahnawaz bhai (brother) is everything for us. He saved the life of my sister-in-law,” Jackson told Al Jazeera.
Sheikh, 32, is running a “COVID war room” in Mumbai to help people with oxygen cylinders as hospitals across India run out of the life-saving gas crucial for severe COVID-19 patients with hypoxaemia – when oxygen levels in the blood are too low.
In May last year, the pregnant cousin of one of Sheikh’s friends died at the gates of a hospital because she could not get admitted on time.
The incident moved Sheikh, who decided to spend all his savings to buy 30 oxygen cylinders to help people suffering from the virus.
“My friend lost her cousin because hospitals were overburdened with COVID patients. I decided to provide critically ill patients with oxygen cylinders until they are admitted to any hospital,” he told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
Sold SUV to help people with oxygen
But the demand for oxygen kept growing and Sheikh felt 30 cylinders were not enough. In June last year, he sold his SUV to buy 170 more.
With a total of 200 cylinders, he and his team of 20 have since helped nearly 6,000 people, saving numerous lives.
In the second COVID-19 wave that swept India this month, Sheikh says his team has helped more than 600 people with oxygen cylinders.
“On a daily basis, we get hundreds of calls for help. Sometimes we are able to help and sometimes not,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sheikh, now known as the Oxygen Man, said the teachings of Prophet Muhammad inspired him to take the initiative, which he hopes will help people shed a “negative image” about the Muslim community in the country.
“There is so much negativity about Muslims in our country today. I want to change that image,” he said.
Like Sheikh, thousands of Indians, irrespective of age and profession, are dedicating themselves to helping distraught families as the country battles a catastrophic surge in infections and its healthcare system struggles to cope with a relentless inflow of patients.
Volunteers are running SOS groups around the clock to help people hit by the second wave of coronavirus, which on Thursday saw its deadliest day yet with 3,645 deaths and record 379,257 new COVID-19 cases.
In the past two weeks, Indian social media turned into a helpline, with people asking for leads on the availability of hospital beds, oxygen, plasma donors and vital drugs such as remdesivir.
Ishwar, 55, who goes by his first name and lives in Gurgaon, the main city in the northern Haryana state, tested positive for COVID last week. On Saturday, his oxygen level dropped to an alarming 65.
His 22-year-old daughter Priya, who also goes by one name, said she felt anxious and helpless as they were not able to find a hospital bed.
“I was feeling angry… helpless because nothing was working. I was so angry at the government,” she told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
A desperate Priya reached out for help with an SOS message on Instagram. She was immediately contacted by Manasi Hansa, who has been part of an online group of volunteers.
Hansa, 30, is a lawyer by profession who is helping people with contacts where they can find oxygen cylinders and hospital beds.
“Until a week ago, people didn’t know what an oxygen concentrator is or what is the optimum SPO2 level. Today people are running ICUs from home,” she told Al Jazeera.
Hansa helped Priya find a hospital bed for her father, who is now on oxygen support.
“They not just provided me with a resource guide but also followed up as well. They called me, gave me strength, counselled me and asked me regularly how my father was doing,” said Priya.
“These people are doing a wonderful job. Forwarding numbers is easy, but actually calling the person who is dealing with it and talking with them takes a lot of courage. It’s not easy to deal with so many people, it’s mentally taxing.”
Another problem many Indians are facing is getting people to help with the last rites of their loved ones who have died of COVID-19.
Fears of catching the infection are rampant as families are forced to fend for themselves in claiming the dead from hospitals or carrying them to crematoriums from their homes.
In the central Indian city of Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh state, Danish Siddiqui and Saddam Quraishi have cremated nearly 60 bodies of Hindus who died of the virus.
Siddiqui, 38, works with the local municipality department and is currently in charge of the special ambulances for COVID patients.
He said they had to step in after many kin of the deceased refused to perform the last rites of their family members.
“Everybody deserves a proper goodbye. I want to serve humanity because I believe humanity is bigger than religion,” he said.