Letter from the CEO: Covid Update 6

Dear Friends of Calcutta Rescue,

The situation here in Kolkata has altered dramatically since my last email so I thought it was high time to update you on what our organisation has been doing.

Prior to the easing of lockdown, we put a lot of effort into refining our procedures for how we were going to operate the clinics safely once they reopened. Three UK doctors provided invaluable advice on best practice and we ran a number of training sessions with staff so they fully understood what they needed to do to keep themselves and their patients safe.

We physically reorganised the clinics into green and red zones and installed perspex shields at key points to provide a physical barrier between patients and staff. To stay safe we needed to reduce the number of people attending the clinics by three quarters. So we retrained all our doctors to do telephone consultations, with only those who had to collect medicine, food or be examined by a doctor being invited to come to the clinic. We also decided to stagger the reopening of the clinics so that we could focus on each in turn to ensure they were operating safely.

The good news is that all that preparation really paid off when the government finally lifted the lockdown. We started reopening the clinics in June, first Tala Park, then Chitpur and then Nimtala last month. Our DOTS clinic is up and running and our street medicine teams are delivering medicines to patients around the city. Thanks to our new appointment-only system, and the fact that the trains and buses aren’t running, we are seeing 23 patients a day at our main clinic Tala Park instead of 80 – which is exactly what we wanted. Since the system started doctors have not had to carry out a single face-to-face examination inside the clinic. Patients remain outside and communication with their doctor is through a plexiglass screen. Patients requiring dressings are being attended to by our wound dresser who sits on the other side of a transparent curtain with cut holes and who wears a full PPE suit, mask, visor, gloves, and shoe coverings. Our schools remain closed but we continue to supply the children’s families with food, vitamins and medicines to ensure they remain healthy, and teachers continue to work closely with the pupils using their mobile phones.

As you know, the number of cases in West Bengal has been climbing and climbing since June with the state about to touch 100,000 cases. The number of new daily cases today (2954) is three times higher than the number of daily cases being added a month ago. Although we are probably several months behind Delhi and Mumbai the virus is spreading rapidly through the state’s metropolitan areas, slums and districts surrounding Kolkata.

Despite all the training and PPE which staff now have, and the fact that we collect them by vehicle each day to prevent them having to use public transport, there is no way we can protect them completely. So far five members of staff have tested positive for Covid and one sadly died of the virus last month. Uttara was a helper at Tala Park School and had been working as a cleaner at Tala Park Clinic.Her death came as a big shock to the team and a reminder of the risks we all now face. 

Every time a member of staff suspects they have come into close contact with a carrier we try to identify any members of staff who may also need to self-isolate. Last week we agreed on a procedure for how we can support staff who test positive or display symptoms of the virus and how we can support their families should the worst happen. Fortunately our founder, Dr Jack, has just set up and funded a staff benevolent scheme which can be used to provide medical treatment and other support when necessary – especially for our lower paid staff. As pressure grows on medical services here over the coming weeks this will provide a vital lifeline for the team – and could well save lives. 

Buying PPE, installing safety barriers, supplying food and sanitary kits to patients and schoolchildren all costs money – and this is set to continue for an indefinite period. We have also just purchased our first batch of 20 smartphones for pupils who currently have no access to one. Without the interaction with teachers they provide, many of our youngsters are likely to fall further behind in their education and may fall out of the system altogether. We are in the process of purchasing the next batch of 50 over the coming weeks. And we need to get tablet computers so that our doctors can rapidly and effectively record telephone consultations. 

So in June our support groups around the world decided to do a global sponsored walk to fund Calcutta Rescue’s Covid costs.

This took place on July 25 (Dr Jack’s 90th birthday) with almost 150 people in places like Australia, Hawaii and Britain walking 10km either on their own or in small groups. The response from abroad has been incredible, with over £120,000 raised so far – which will go a very long way to paying for what we need. 

Here in Kolkata the Covid situation meant that it would not have been responsible to ask people to take part in the sponsored walk. So instead we decided to do a two-hour live internet broadcast about the charity that day with videos from walkers, previously unseen photographs of Dr Jack and all the projects he set up over the years, and much more. I hosted it from my garage at home where I was self-isolating after coming into contact with someone with the virus. Fortunately I didn’t develop any symptoms and the broadcast was somewhat nerve-wracking but very well received – with almost 18,000 views so far. 

During the programme we launched an appeal in India to purchase a new jeep so we can deliver medical supplies deep into rural areas. This was something we had to frequently do during the lockdown, but the vehicle which we used  is 20 years old and simply not up to the punishment dished out by hours of bouncing along rural roads. At one point, because of a shortage of drivers, I ended up going on mercy missions carrying medicine and driving this vehicle myself over a period of two weeks deep into rural south Bengal, so I know how bad a condition it is in. The cost of a replacement vehicle is Rs.8L.

I think it is likely that there will be a significant increase in demand for our services in the villages and districts around Kolkata in the coming months as local Covid-control measures make it impossible for villagers to access clinics and pharmacies. 

So I would be hugely grateful if you could help us to fund a new vehicle now by making a donation to our GiveIndia appeal at  https://tinyurl.com/y4fvucos. Please ask your family, friends and work colleagues whether they would like to help too.

What lies ahead over the coming weeks and months is very hard to predict – in this dangerous and rapidly evolving situation. 

But two things are certain. Firstly, that we will continue to do all we can to support our beneficiaries regardless of the challenges we face. And secondly that any support you can give us at this time will be well used and will help keep staff and thousands of poor people in the villages and bustees safe during this hugely difficult period. 

Thank you so much.

Jaydeep Chakraborty