Day 6

Amidst record COVID-19 cases in India, this 20-year-old student helps source critical medical supplies

As India continues to see record numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths — and with critical medical supplies like oxygen in short supply — Siddhant Sarang, a 20-year-old student and environmental activist, says he has a duty to help.

'If you are not infected right now, you are the luckiest people in the world,' says Siddhant Sarang

Medical staff attend to COVID-19 positive patients in the ICU ward at the Holy Family hospital on May 6 in New Delhi, India. India broke a fresh record on Thursday with over 412,000 new cases as the total number of those infected according to Health Ministry data neared 20 million. (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

Student and environmental activist Siddhant Sarang never imagined he would be scouring for life-saving medications and hospital beds for people across India.

But as the country continues to see record numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths — and with critical medical supplies like oxygen in short supply — he says he has a duty to help.

"The situation is very distressed," Sarang, 20, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury from New Delhi.

"If you are not infected right now, you are the luckiest people in the world."

Sarang is just one of the many volunteers who have been bolstering the efforts of health-care professionals in India, taking phone calls and responding to SOS messages from patients and their loved ones on social media.

Siddhant Sarang, a 20-year-old university student and climate activist in Delhi, India is running a one-person volunteer operation for sourcing medical supplies for those in need. (Submitted by Siddhant Sarang)

He says the requests are not only coming from patients, but from hospitals with sometimes hundreds of patients requiring oxygen that are facing critical shortages.

Sarang began responding after his close friend's father became critically ill, and required doses of the antiviral drug remdesivir.

"I tried to contact many pharmacies and many politicians to help me get out of this situation," Sarang said.

"Unfortunately, by the time we got the medicine, we lost his father and he called me — and that 26 seconds of call broke me apart."

The friend then begged Sarang to continue helping others, and he took up the call.

Earlier this week, Sarang says he was responding to an SOS request for a teacher in Delhi in need of a hospital bed with a ventilator. 

He was also working to gather information about the husband of a woman in Australia. The man travelled to New Delhi for his parents who had contracted COVID-19 and died, and was then admitted to hospital with COVID-19 himself.

"Now, his wife and his family in Australia has no information about him, where he is and how critical he is — or even [if] he is alive or not," Sarang said.

Desperate need for drugs, supplies

As cases continue unabated in the country's densely populated cities, COVID-19 has also started spreading to rural communities where health-care systems are ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic's second wave.

Crematoriums and burial grounds have similarly struggled to keep up. Experts believe that the official pandemic-related numbers are an undercount of the massive toll the pandemic is taking on lives in the country, according to The Associated Press.

As the crisis continues, Sarang says that people are turning to the black market for critical medications like remdesivir, but expensive and illegitimate vials of the drug are being filled with water.

He also says that some pharmacists are taking advantage of the crisis by withholding remdesivir doses.

A man mourns as he sits next to the burning pyre of a relative, who died from COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, on May 5, 2021. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

"If a buyer goes to the shop, they say, 'We have no remdesivir.' But if you offer them a large amount of money, they give you the remdesivir," said Sarang.

France 24 reported last month that one pharmacist told a desperate customer the black market was the only source of remdesivir, and offered to source it for 30 times its usual price.

Canada is sending medical supplies — including 350 ventilators and 25,000 vials of remdesivir, or 4,000 courses to treatment — to India. 

On Thursday, under order by the country's Supreme Court, India's government agreed to provide more medical oxygen to hospitals in New Delhi. 

Medical experts, politicians and even Supreme Court judges have also called on the government to implement national restrictions in hopes of slowing the rising case numbers. 

A man reacts before the cremation of his relative, who died from COVID-19, on the banks of the river Ganges at Garhmukteshwar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India on May 6. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

"In my opinion, only a national stay-at-home order and declaring a medical emergency will help to address the current health-care needs," Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist with the University of Michigan, said on Twitter.

But despite the dire situation his country faces, Sarang says he has found hope.

"People from every caste, religion, political party, they are united to help each other. And this is what gives me hope, that we are united," she said. 

"We are changing, and we are changing for good reason."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?