Covid-positive and suffering abnormally low oxygen levels in her blood, the 37-year-old was turned away from every hospital she visited, due to a lack of beds and oxygen supplies.
Her husband’s cousin, Mehmood Khan, turned to the internet for help. That’s where he found Shahnawaz Shaikh — known as “the oxygen man.”
Khan reached out and within an hour, a free oxygen cylinder was delivered by a volunteer to the home of Reshma Aub Shaikh, who is not related to Shahnawaz Shaikh. “It saved her life,” Khan said.
Shaikh, 32, grew up in a Mumbai slum and owned a small successful construction company before the pandemic. But the months-long lockdown imposed in March last year forced him to shut his business as “the situation went from bad to worse in Mumbai,” one of India’s worst-hit cities by Covid-19.
The financial center is the capital of Maharashtra state, which as of Tuesday, had reported more than 5.1 million Covid-19 infections and over 75,000 virus-related deaths.
Among the dead is Shaikh’s best friend’s sister, who was six months pregnant. In May last year, he saw her die at the gates of an overwhelmed hospital following a futile race to secure a bed.
“All she needed was oxygen — that could have saved her and her unborn child,” Shaikh says.
He says her death moved him to action.
Shaikh had already established his non-profit Unity And Dignity Foundation (UDF) in 2014 as a side project. Last June, he founded its Ray of Hope initiative initiative, to give free oxygen to coronavirus patients.
Shaikh spent $2,000 of his own money to buy 30 oxygen cylinders and offered them for free to anybody in need, spreading the open call through social media and friends.
The response was overwhelming. He said it gave him a sense of purpose, which aligned with his Muslim values.
Encouraged by his initial success, Shaikh decided to raise his capacity — but his funds were running dry. That month, to meet the rising demand for more cylinders, he sold his Ford Endeavour SUV.
Bought for the equivalent of $30,000, Shaikh accepted around $12,000 for the car. The money allowed him to buy another 160 oxygen cylinders. His efforts also brought him fame as word spread and more volunteers joined his operation.
At the time, India was in its first wave of the pandemic. Though things were bad, they were about to get worse.
The oxygen mission
As India battles its second wave of the pandemic, which emerged in March, the country’s health care system is under intense strain: beds, medical workers and oxygen are in short supply. Some Covid patients are dying in waiting rooms or outside clinics, before seeing a doctor.
Shaikh said he now gets 500 to 600 requests a day and has been able to help nearly 7,000 people — sometimes paying medical bills for those who can’t afford to.
His team runs a 24/7 operation and has expanded this year to 20 volunteers, 240 oxygen cylinders, and a “war room” base from which Covid-19 patients can access information on available hospital beds, ventilators and emergency doctors.
“This war room is a kirana store (convenience store) that emptied out post-lockdown last year, and turned into our central nervous system for all patient needs,” Shaikh said.
Shaikh has also launched an online fundraising campaign — so far hitting around $21,000 of a $140,000 target.
But as his capacity to help has increased, so too have the hurdles in securing supplies.
Liquid oxygen “is in extremely short supply” at the oxygen plants on the outskirts of Mumbai, he said. “What was available (before) in a radius of two to four kilometers (about 1.3 to 2.5 miles) is at least 40 to 60 kilometers (25 to 37 miles) away. We have to try twice as hard to secure supplies, exhausting six to eight hours in refilling just a handful of oxygen cylinders.”
“But we are not giving up,” he added.
Kanchan Dedhiya, 75, tested positive for coronavirus in April. Her grandson Vignesh Dedhiya says she has received Shaikh’s help at least four times in the past month. “Each time Shahnawaz was eager to help and followed up almost immediately with an (oxygen) cylinder,” Dedhiya said.
But Shaikh’s ability to help is being severely tested by the second wave. In the past month, he has seen cases that left children orphaned and families without their breadwinner.
“We try to help as many as possible,” he said. “When we can’t, it’s quite demoralizing, but we give it our all every single day.”
In one recent case, Shaikh got an urgent call from a stranger asking for a bed for his elderly Covid-positive father. Shaikh’s team arranged an ambulance, and spent seven hours contacting nearly 20 hospitals — but failed to secure a bed.
Eventually the family decided to go home, and Shaikh provided free oxygen to keep the man’s father breathing — but he did not survive the night.
Other times, patients die despite their best efforts because hospital beds with ventilators are in severely short supply.
Earlier this month, Shaikh provided oxygen to a 45-year-old woman with Covid-19, but her condition worsened, and she needed a ventilator. Shaikh’s team was unable to find one in time, and the woman died less than a day later.
Oxygen shortages are not the only issue. Shaikh said the volunteers are battling fierce price-gouging on the informal market.
Before the second wave, liquid oxygen was available from regular suppliers for about $2 for 10 liters, he said. Now, on the black market, it’s up to about $47 “if we get lucky.” Prices have also skyrocketed for empty oxygen cylinders, from about $40 to $135, he said.
“We should be ashamed,” he added. “The country is in despair and a handful of rogue elements are not sparing a rather dark time to double their profits.”
For every opportunist, however, there is someone helping those who need it most.
Indian social media is flooded with messages from people asking for leads on oxygen, hospital beds, antiviral drugs such as remdesivir and even plasma donors.