‘Covid driver’ of hills, always on call
Amir Gurung lives less than a kilometer away from Darjeeling district hospital but for the past three months, he has only been promising his six-year-old son Sherab that he will come home soon.
Amir, the “Covid driver”, however, is not sure when he will reunite with his wife Sona, 16-year-old son Ayush and Sherab.“I have been staying at the district hospital ever since the pandemic started….for almost three months now,” said Amir.
The family stays near Lewis Jubilee Complex in Darjeeling.
Amir,44, is the “main driver” of “102 ambulance” and the one+ to transport suspected Covid-19 patients to hospitals. The ambulance service’s helpline number is 102.
“My family, especially Sherab, makes a video call everyday and tells me ‘Baba, I know you will come tomorrow,’ I tell him ‘yes I am coming’. But how can I go home ?” asked Amir.Amir is not sad that he is indulging in white lies with his son.
“This is my job, I cannot shy away from it,” the driver, who has been provided with accommodation at the hospital, said.
However, his job has not been easy.
“I was scared when I had to drive a suspected coronavirus patient (who later tested positive) to Siliguri for the first time,” confessed Amir. After returning to Darjeeling, he was more “depressed than scared”.
“The eateries near the hospital denied me entry. People started avoiding me. This continued for days and I was very depressed with their attitude,” said Amir.
Right now, there are four ambulances to ferry suspected Covid-19 patients, but Amir is the first choice.
“If his ambulance is engaged, we fill in the service,” said Dipesh Mukhia, another driver.
Even Mukhia feels sad with the general attitude. “I have a three-year-old son and villagers used to avoid him, too. Such attitude de-motivates us,” said Mukhia. Both Amir and Mukhia said the attitude was slowly changing now. Unlike Amir, other drivers return home.
The drivers are aware of their professional hazards.
“I do a weekly swab test. I am very particular about sanitising the vehicle and my PPE kits. One has to take precautions,” said Amir.The drivers work for a private agency GVC-EMRI and are paid Rs 10,000 each per month. They are not paid allowances for the Covid-19 duty.
Their job is also thankless.
“Sometimes, people call us to places which can be reached only through four-wheel drive vehicles. Once I was struck for six hours in a jungle near Relling. The residents were adamant that I took the ambulance to the village but my vehicle would not move along the muddy road,” said Amir.
The patient was finally brought to the spot where Amir was stuck in a pick-up van that had four-wheel drive provisions.
Tuesday, however, was a special day for Amir. Residents near the Eden hospital (district hospital) felicitated Amir for his grit and determination. “We have been noticing his selfless service and decided to felicitate him,” said Rajesh Rajak, general secretary, Nav Jyoti Gram Samaj.
Amir said: “I am deeply moved by this recognition. I am really happy today. I do not know when I can return home but such recognition provides me with the josh to carry on.”