How will COVID patients survive Delhi’s non-AC railway isolation wards in the scorching heat?
At Anand Vihar Railway station, the Indian Railways has created a COVID isolation facility for nearly 4,200 patients. But how will the COVID patients survive these non-AC isolation wards in the scorching heat? These railway isolation coaches might end up feeling like frying pans or iron cages from lying out in the sun all day.
On June 16, Delhi’s Anand Vihar Railway Station was shut down to the common public. The entire station has been transformed into a COVID facility which will be taken over by the Delhi government as and when required. The move of converting the railway coaches into isolation wards caught people’s attention. Many hailed it as an innovative solution to the present crisis looming over the national capital.
The COVID-19 outbreak is fast increasing in the national capital, especially in the past couple of weeks. The surge in coronavirus cases in June is keeping the Arvind Kejriwal government on its toes. It passed controversial orders such as reserving the hospitals operating in Delhi – except the Centre-run hospitals – for the Delhi residents.
The move ended up triggering a power tussle between the Lieutenant Governor’s office and the Delhi Secretariat. Last week, in an attempt to put the Centre on the back foot, Kejriwal’s deputy Manish Sisodia revealed Delhi’s COVID-19 projections. Sisodia said by July end Delhi will have 5.5 lakh COVID cases and will need 80,000 beds to accommodate them. Right now Delhi has nearly 10, 000 beds and the Aam Aadmi Party-led government plans to add another 20,000 beds in a week's time by converting the stadiums, banquet halls and nursing homes into temporary COVID hospitals.
In response to the LG-Delhi slugfest, the Central government started a coordinated effort between the Centre, the Delhi government and the civic bodies governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They put on an united front to contain the deadly war against the virus, at least, for the TV cameras.
The decision to convert the Anand Vihar Railway Station (AVNT) into a COVID isolation facility was taken in the wake of these developments. However, the move was not a surprise as the Indian Railways had claimed to have prepared extra beds and transformed the coaches into makeshift hospitals as early as April 2020. While 50 per cent of these coaches were again shifted to be used as passenger fleets from June 1, the rest were kept as the backup plan.
The railway officials said that even AVNT had readied three trains as COVID facilities which were sent to places such as Ambala. However, Delhi is yet to use this alternative on a large scale.
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Isolation wards at Anand Vihar Railway station
The Indian Railways has converted 171 coaches into isolation wards, while another 96 coaches have been kept as a contingency plan. Each of these coaches has nine bays of which one will be allotted to the medical staff for equipment and other essentials.
Two patients will be admitted to each bay. The railway staff is not only sanitising these coaches but also installing essentials such as oxygen cylinders. In order to completely separate the bays from each other, plastic curtains have been installed.
The coaches used for isolation wards are that of the local trains and sleeper trains. Hence, they are not air-conditioned. There are two AC coaches that have been attached at two ends of each isolation ward train. These are meant exclusively for the healthcare staff.
The entire railway facility is being rapidly transferred into a COVID facility or, so to say, a makeshift hospital. The boards indicating the way to isolation wards, instructions of how to use the personal protective equipment, and zone wise division could be spotted at every corner of the AVNT.
“We had begun the preparation of converting passenger trains into isolation coaches right from the beginning, that is, March. But the process of converting the entire railway station into the COVID facility begin when the trains stopped plying from here on June 16,” the AVNT station superintendent, Chaudhary Om Kumar told Asiaville. He further added that the railway staff has been working round the clock for this transformation. “We were racing against time. Now, this facility is ready to be taken over by the Delhi government.”
According to him, the AVNT COVID facility can accommodate nearly 4200 patients. If required, more trains could be brought in. However, that is a decision to be taken by the Central and state administrations.
While the Indian railway has supplied resources required for setting up these isolation coaches including the oxygen cylinders, the Delhi government will be responsible for running the facility as and when it takes over.
“The healthcare staff will be arranged by the Delhi government. For food and water, the IRCTC (Railways’ vendor) has been roped in by the Delhi government,” Kumar said. Railway staff would take care of only the maintenance part and the Indian railway is planning to supply them with the PPE kits for such duties.
Meanwhile, railway staff like Mahesh Singh have been racing against time to meet the deadline. Singh, who has been working as a carpenter since 1987, said he could never imagine the railway stations being transformed into a hospital. “We have been working day in day out to meet the deadline. Most of us have not even taken offs because of this challenge of converting the coaches into isolation wards,” he said. In many cases, the railway staff had to remove the middle berth in the coaches to meet the standard protocol.
Importantly, the staff working on this mammoth mission complained about the long working hours at a time when the heat and humidity could have a killing effect.
Isolation coaches or iron cages?
These isolation coaches are laying on seven platforms of the station. They are essentially the coaches of local trains and sleeper coaches and hence don’t have air conditioning facilities. Given that these trains will not be moving, the heat inside these trains could rise to levels which could be unbearable for the COVID patients.
This correspondent requested the railway staff to switch on the light and fans to check whether these facilities would give any respite. Unfortunately, this was not the case. With the scorching heat outside, these coaches gave a feeling of iron cages more than isolation wards.
“Garmi se marenge. Yahan corona patient ko bachaane ke liye laa rahe hain ya maarne ke liye (The heat inside these trains could be unbearable. I don’t know whether they are bringing the corona patients here to save them or to kill them),” a railway staff overseeing the preparation work at one of the platforms told this correspondent. He requested anonymity.
Another staff pointed out the flaw with the restroom facilities. Each coach is expected to accommodate 16 patients. These patients will have three toilets and only one bathroom at their disposal. It could further increase the inconvenience for COVID patients. Given the short numbers, those who will be admitted here might have to queue up for maintaining basic hygiene.
Moreover, the very idea of accommodating two patients in a single bay is a matter worth reconsidering. Putting patients in both berths of a bay would mean placing them in close proximity to each other.