A selfless Indian rickshaw driver has worked tirelessly to ferry 15,000 people to hospital during India’s Covid-19 crisis.
Jitendra Shinde, 50, says that 1,000 of his passengers had Covid-19 symptoms.
Each and every one has been recorded in a diary kept by the driver, who has put his health and personal finances on the line to help society.
When Mr Shinde first wore personal protection equipment, the entire community was scared. Little did they know he was on a mission.
“No one came close to me,” he remembers. He started using his auto rickshaw to help Covid-19 patients.
“It was an SOS call. A labourer whose oxygen saturation level fell below 90 had tested Covid-positive and he dialled me,” Mr Shinde said.
This was in the last week of March 2020.
Mr Shinde quickly dropped the labourer off at the Kolhapur’s CPR hospital in western India’s Maharashtra state.
Fourteen days later, he got a call from the same labourer: “I’ve defeated Covid.”
With a sigh of relief, Mr Shinde moved on to the next call, another request to drop a patient at the nearest hospital.
He receives several hundred SOS calls every week and ferries patients with any medical illness to hospitals in Kolhapur city for free.
He first started this community service on March 24, 2020 – the day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the world’s biggest lockdown, affecting 1.3 billion people.
Within a year, he ferried more than 15,000 people – about 40 a day – including more than 1,000 coronavirus patients.
“If someone tests Covid positive, society makes them a pariah. How will such people reach hospitals or quarantine centres?” Mr Shinde asks.
With India now reporting over 300,000 cases in a day, health infrastructure is strained beyond capacity across most of the country.
Mr Shinde continuously seeks updates on the number of vacant beds in hospitals and quarantine centres.
“First, I ask people their location, the problems they are facing, and then I take them to the nearest possible hospital.”
His list of passengers includes pregnant women and people with disabilities.
“Within a year, I dropped off 70 pregnant women to hospitals,” he says.
To ensure safety, he always sanitises the hands of the patients before letting them enter the auto rickshaw.
Kolhapur district, which has the highest death rate in Maharashtra, at 2.7 per cent, is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis.
“In several cases, no one comes to lift the bodies of the deceased Covid patients,” Mr Shinde says.
At such times, he helps to transport the bodies and to perform the death rituals according to their beliefs, ensuring the dignity of the victims is not lost.
While ambulances in Delhi and other parts of India are charging as much as 8,500 rupees ($115) for a five-kilometre journey, he will not take any money.
So far, Mr Shinde has spent 150,000 rupees of his savings to help people. He spent another 5,000 rupees to buy PPE kits.
“No one has come forward to help me, and neither do I expect them to,” he says.
“Every day I have to spend at least 200 rupees on fuel.”
Mr Shinde explains how people still fear him when he wears PPE.
“They think I am Covid-positive, or I might spread the virus.”
For recovering Covid patients and those in home isolation, he delivers medicine, vegetables and essential groceries, funding everything through paid trips for passengers who are not ill.
Mr Shinde's work comes with its own set of challenges.
“Fellow rickshaw drivers don’t allow me to park my auto in the stand. They shun me, saying, 'What if you infect us?'”
Mr Shinde suspects that some of them stole 5,000 rupees from his rickshaw a few months back.
“I don’t care about the money lost, but they even stole my diary where I had written the names of the patients I helped.”
He says his motivation to help comes from his childhood when “I couldn’t even bid goodbye to my ailing parents with dignity".
Mr Shinde was only 10 years old.
“Whenever I help any patient, it feels like I am helping my parents and that’s why I do this work every day,” he explains.
Last year, for seven months, he would isolate himself after returning from work.
“Now, I’ve taken both doses of the vaccine," Mr Shinde says. "However, I still wear a mask.”
He responds to his call of unpaid duty in the quickest possible way.
“I am not allowed to use a siren in my auto but when it’s an emergency, I put it on. What will you do if the patient dies?” he asks.
There have been times he was caught by the local police for breaking the lockdown rules. He tries to explain the urgency of the issue, but if nothing works, “I dial the senior police officials, who let me go".
Not a day goes by that Mr Shinde does not hear from people he helped.
“That joy is what I live for,” he says.
In the August 2019 floods that devastated western Maharashtra, he saved about 500 people from the nearby village of Chikhali.
“I would drop the rescued villagers to safer places,” he says proudly. He also distributes food to the homeless and daily wage earners who lost their jobs in the lockdown.
He travels as far as 110km to the villages of Belagavi district on the border of Karnataka state to help patients.
Mr Shinde is proud of not turning away any request.
“People donate to temples. I spend money to save lives,” he says. Now, he dreams of starting an old people’s home.
“Tens of people should come forward and help others,” he says. “If my life story inspires someone, I will have done my job.”