Indian volunteers defy the risks of COVID and take care of the sick and dead

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Medics attend to a man with breathing problems in a COVID-19 unit of a government-run hospital amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Bijnor District, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Danish Siddiqui

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By Kannaki Deka and Chandini Monnappa

BENGALURU (Reuters) – Every day after completing the online courses he teaches at a Bengaluru college, Akshay Mandlik puts on his mask, gloves and overalls and sets off to help out the COVID dead to bury.

The 37-year-old social work professor is one of many volunteer citizens across India who advocate for families affected by the country’s devastating second wave, who often risk their own personal safety.

Mandlik helps grieving relatives find grave sites, carry the dead and even dig graves when a gravedigger is not available.

“It took me some time to think about getting involved as I am not vaccinated, but the need of the hour was greater than my own fear,” said Mandlik.

India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, fully vaccinated just over 40.9 million people, or just 3.3% of its 1.35 billion population, on Wednesday.

Volunteers say they were moved to act by desperate requests for help on social media and in their local communities.

Brothers Murthaza Junaid and Muteeb Zoheb, both well-known motorcycle racers and entrepreneurs, now volunteer as ambulance drivers in Bengaluru, responding to hundreds of calls every week.

Zoheb, 33, said he and his brother decided to volunteer a month ago after hearing reports of families being overwhelmed by professional emergency services.

With India’s second wave epicenter constantly shifting, Bengaluru’s COVID-19 count exceeded 10,000 on Tuesday, and the daily number of new infections has overtaken that of Mumbai and New Delhi. More than a third of the deaths in Bengaluru so far occurred in May.

Informal groups of volunteers have emerged where IT professionals, investment bankers, real estate agents, and students work together to find critical care beds, remdesivir stocks, oxygen concentrators, or ambulances.

Azmat Mohammed, 44, said he was taking a sabbatical from his job in IT to help full-time, while law student Akshaya 22 said she was balancing classes with her COVID volunteering.

“I think if we do good you will be fine,” said Akshaya, who prefers to use only her first name.

“I attend classes and go to the cemetery for burial. I also spend time working with other people to help out with ambulances. It’s a lot of multitasking.”

With the second wave, which spreads beyond the big cities, similar groups formed in smaller cities as well.

In Surat, western Gujarat state, volunteers from the Khan Trust and the Ekta Foundation are working to cremate COVID-infected bodies in the area.

During a wave of deadly Hindu-Muslim unrest in 2002, Surat saw some of the worst acts of violence, but the pandemic has diluted some of the remaining hostility between communities, volunteers say.

Sahil Sheikh, in his 20s, said he and his friends performed the final rites for nearly 800 people of all religions last year.

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