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One Pandemic, Two Cyclones: In India, Aid Groups Respond Amid the Damage

Doctors For You and Calcutta Rescue are working to provide ongoing care while responding to urgent needs.

People assess the damage caused by Cyclone Amphan. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ravikant Singh)
People assess the damage caused by Cyclone Amphan. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ravikant Singh)

Dr. Ravikant Singh’s organization, Doctors For You, was already trying to slow the spread of Covid-19 in India.

Then, on May 20, after the Indian government undertook evacuations for more than 1 million people, Cyclone Amphan, a “super cyclone” with winds of above 150 miles at its worst, made landfall in West Bengal, killing dozens and causing extensive devastation – about $13 billion in damage in West Bengal alone, CNN reported. Both western India and eastern Bangladesh were badly hit.

Homes and roads were destroyed, and many were left without power or clean water.

Within two weeks, another storm, Cyclone Nisarga, made landfall south of Mumbai, causing several deaths.

“It’s like multiple disasters coming up in India one by one,” said Dr. Singh, the aid organization’s president. “The situation was actually very bad before Amphan, and after Amphan, immediately, the situation was so severe.”

Doctors For You was already active in ten states, distributing personal protective equipment and medicines to hospitals; staffing isolation centers with doctors, and conducting door-to-door Covid-19 screening and contact tracing.

Dr. Singh explained that India’s strict lockdown, designed to restrict the transmission of Covid-19, had actually made some elements of fighting the disease more difficult. “Before Amphan, because of the lockdown, transporting items from one state or one district to another was very difficult,” he said. “We were hoping the lockdown would relax, and then Amphan happened.”

The cyclone damaged roads and power lines, all but cutting off people living in some remote areas. “Providing supplies to these remote villages and other districts is very difficult,” said Dr. Singh.

Dr. Alakananda Ghosh, Deputy CEO of the aid group, Calcutta Rescue, said her group was managing to continue providing primary and specialty care services despite the lockdown. “The work was going on,” she said. “Then Amphan came and struck badly in Kolkata and Bengal.”

A family in a damaged structure. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ravikant Singh)
A family in a damaged structure. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ravikant Singh)

Dr. Ghosh described being unable to contact patients, particularly those in rural villages, because “the whole of the network was down.”

In addition, the supply chain that normally provided Calcutta Rescue with medications was interrupted, making it harder to purchase medicine. “Patients were crying and saying they cannot get medicine from the local pharmacy. ‘Even if it’s not Covid, we will die without insulin,’” she said.

And complicating matters, according to Dr. Singh, is the fact that many people who had originally moved to large cities are returning to their homes in West Bengal, where Amphan struck. “They are bringing lots of Covid cases, and they have lost their livelihood because of Covid,” he said.

Calcutta Rescue serves a vulnerable population with difficulty accessing healthcare in living situations that range from rural villages to urban slums. Dr. Ghosh said that something like 90% of patients have at least one significant medical condition, including diabetes, cardiovascular illness, cancers, blood disorders, and HIV.

The organization swung into action, distributing food, antidiarrheal drugs, and chlorine tablets to people in affected areas. For patients who needed medication, whether insulin or cancer drugs, they began delivering it, from patients living in destroyed houses in Kolkata to those located in villages six or seven hours away.

Dr. Singh said that Doctors For You was setting up Covid-19 isolation units and establishing “child feeding centers” to avoid malnourishment in the wake of Amphan. “Malnutrition is [already] very high in those districts, and we are very worried that after Amphan, child malnutrition will increase,” he said.

The extensive damage means that many people, especially in the densely populated and badly affected South 24 Parganas district, have been crowded together in school buildings or relief camps. “Their villages are totally destroyed,” Dr. Singh said.

Calcutta Rescue workers examine a damaged structure. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Alakananda Ghosh)
Calcutta Rescue workers examine a damaged structure. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Alakananda Ghosh)

Asked about the safety of putting displaced people in crowded shelters, he said, “We can’t do anything. They will die of other diseases if they don’t provide them the shelter.”

To help contain the spread of Covid-19 in the wake of the pandemic, Doctors For You is distributing hygiene kits with cloth face coverings, soap, and hand sanitizer to those affected. “Mask distribution, soap distribution, that is the only thing we can do. Maintaining social distancing…is easier said than done,” explained Dr. Singh.

He’s also worried about the economic impacts of Covid-19. Not only has it cost many their livelihoods, but Dr. Singh said it’s also slowed support from middle-income donors. “We as a humanitarian agency are struggling to respond at multiple places simultaneously,” he said.

But both groups remain dedicated to their work.

Asked about the difficulty of providing continuous care in the wake of the cyclones, Dr. Ghosh was unconcerned. “It may be hard, but our staff is so dedicated that this hardship is nothing,” she said. “We are here to serve our people.”

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