Zero leads after 200 calls: What’s the use of NCR’s Covid helplines?

Newslaundry called government helplines in Delhi, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Noida, and Gurugram over three days. Almost all numbers were switched off, busy, or unresponsive.

ByAnna Priyadarshini
Zero leads after 200 calls: What’s the use of NCR’s Covid helplines?
Shambhavi Thakur
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“I lost my father due to the government’s negligence,” said Mansi Dass, 24. “Had we found an oxygen bed for him on time, he would be here with us today.”

Mansi’s father, Thakur Dass, 59, died in Delhi on April 21 after testing positive for Covid. Three days before his death, his oxygen saturation level fell below 80 and the family desperately searched for an oxygen cylinder.

They could not find one.

“On April 19, his health deteriorated,” Mansi said, adding that they went to at least three private hospitals to admit her father but were “turned away”.

On April 20, the family managed to find an ambulance and took Thakur to Ganga Ram Hospital, since it was the closest to their home to Patel Nagar. “They refused to admit him, saying they did not have any vacant oxygen beds available,” Mansi said.

On the same day, the Covid website of the Delhi government listed 50 beds as available at Kalra Hospital. However, when contacted, the hospital said the beds would only be available after four days. Later that day, the family then went to Tinku Acharya Hospital but Thakur’s oxygen level had stabilised at that point, so the doctors told Mansi to take him home.

His oxygen level soon fell again. Mansi said friends and relatives helped her find leads for hospitals where beds were reportedly available, but nearly 20 calls later, she found nothing.

But what about the official helpline numbers set up by the Delhi government?

“None of them worked,” Mansi said. She had received an automated message from one of the helpline numbers – 1800111747 – on the evening of April 21, asking if the patient needed help. But by then, Mansi had already lost her father. Thakur died at home at 2 pm on April 21.

Mansi’s family is one of countless others struggling to find help through the designated Covid helplines set up by state governments. To check the effectiveness and efficiency of these numbers, Newslaundry called the helpline numbers in Delhi-NCR, across Gurugram, Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Delhi, for three consecutive days: May 3, 4 and 5.

In every call we made, we asked for an ICU bed for a Covid patient with very low oxygen levels – colloquially called an “oxygen bed” – and equipped with a ventilator.

In almost all our attempts, the numbers were either switched off, busy or unresponsive. When we did get through, we were not given specific leads, or had our calls forwarded to other numbers which did not respond, or were referred to the respective official websites.

We made nearly 195 phone calls, or more, simply to find one bed. And even then, we failed to do so.

Delhi

According to the Delhi government’s website, there are 10 official helpline numbers tasked with providing updates on availability of beds at various hospitals, booking oxygen cylinders, getting RT-PCR tests and ambulance services, consulting with doctors, and receiving or donating plasma.

On May 3, we called all 10 numbers between 3 pm and 9 pm. Only two responded.

When we dialled 011-22302441, we asked for an oxygen bed. The person on the other end connected us to two other numbers – 011-26476416 and 011-26476417 – both of which did not answer our calls.

When we called 011-22304568 with the same query, the operator asked us to check the Delhi Covid website for information on beds available. The operator gave us the number of a doctor at a government hospital who oversees South East Delhi, but multiple calls to the doctor went unanswered.

On May 4, we dialled all 10 numbers again with the same query between 1.30 pm and 7 pm. Again, we were only able to get through to two of them; the other eight numbers were either busy or unresponsive.

011-22302441 said their helpline only pertained to Covid testing at home and giving suggestions on how to isolate at home. They added that with the unprecedented rise in Covid cases, they were not taking new samples for testing at the moment.

011-22307145 directed us to the Delhi Covid app, Delhi Corona, to find the specific bed we were looking for.

“Could you please provide any leads on the availability of oxygen beds in Delhi,” we asked. The operator replied, “No oxygen beds are available in Delhi currently. And if you want to get the latest updates on any vacant beds, you can check the Delhi government website or the Delhi Corona app.”

On May 5, we got through to only two helpline numbers.

On dialling 011-22302441, the operator gave us two numbers – 011-41236614 and 9818430043 – saying that they functioned solely to meet the demands for oxygen. Only 011-41236614 responded to our call with an automated message saying, “All our oxygen cylinders are currently with the patients infected with coronavirus. We request you to kindly call after 2-3 hours to check if it's available or not.”

We called back, as instructed, but the same automated message kept playing.

The second number we were given, 9818430043, was busy for over two hours. We stopped trying after that.

Apart from these 10 helplines, a Delhi government notice issued on May 2 lists another number for Covid aid: 1800111747. Calls made to the number on May 3 and 4 were answered after a wait time of two minutes, but the operator was unable to provide specific leads for oxygen beds. Instead, we were told to check the Delhi Covid app and website.

A quick note about the Covid app: Most of the contact numbers listed for hospitals were either unreachable or unresponsive. When we said as much to an operator on 011-22302441, the operator replied, “Most of the hospitals will not respond to calls now. So, I would advise you to visit the hospitals in person to check their status.”

Ghaziabad

Ghaziabad has eight official helpline numbers listed on its website.

On May 3, we called all eight numbers between 3 pm and 9 pm and repeated the process the next day between 1.30 pm and 7 pm. We received no response. Five of the numbers were switched off, the other three were constantly busy.

On May 5, we finally got through to 9910426374. We made the same request – for an ICU bed with a ventilator for a Covid patient with very low oxygen levels – and were told that there were no ICU beds available in Ghaziabad. The operator suggested that we try and find one in Meerut instead.

Noida

Noida has five official helpline numbers.

During the three days we tried calling, only one responded: 18004192211, the integrated Covid control command number which oversees Gautam Buddh Nagar. The number was reported in the media and is not listed on the official website.

The operator told us to check this website for leads on the availability of ICU beds with ventilators or oxygen. We checked, and the website showed no beds available.

Gurugram

Gurugram has three official helpline numbers.

1950 led us to the Delhi Election Commission’s helpline number. 9953618102 does not exist. 012-42322412 was busy on all three days.

Faridabad

There are five official helpline numbers in Faridabad.

On May 3, we got through to two of them: 012-92221000, which is the contact of the 24-hour control room in Faridabad, and 012-92221000. Both directed us to websites such as this and this to look for beds. One of the operators also gave us the contact details of the deputy chief medical officer (infrastructure), Dr Gajraj Singh. We called him but he had no leads.

On May 4 and 5, we got through to three numbers – 012-92221000, 9416352200 and 012-92298500 – but got no leads on bed. The standard response was that “no beds” were available, and we were asked to check the respective websites.

As for the other two numbers, 9654584102 does not exist and 8572010083 was constantly busy.

‘An urgency for a centralised helpline number

So, in three days across 31 phone numbers in five cities, we did not receive a single specific lead for a hospital bed.

Which begs the question: Why isn’t there a centralised helpline number for patients looking for help in Delhi? Both Uttar Pradesh and Haryana operate a centralised helpline under 112 but calls made to the number receive no response.

As journalist Rahul Sabharwal tweeted, every hospital number on the Delhi Covid app “is either switched off, busy or unresponsive”.

Journalist Asmita Bakshi, who has been trying to help frantic citizens on Twitter to find beds, oxygen and medicines, has also been vocal about the need for a centralised helpline in Delhi.

“The amount of calls we receive through social media, phone calls is overwhelming,” she told Newslaundry. “If helplines exist, it has to be very loudly communicated by the Delhi government. They are printing ads in the paper every day but the helpline is one tiny little disclaimer at the end of some press briefings.”

Most people don’t even know helpline numbers exist, Bakshi added.

“Whether the helpline works or not is a second thing. The first thing is educating people about it,” she said. “If there is a helpline and we don’t know about it, it means it doesn’t exist.”

On her experience with the helpline numbers, she said, “When you call, you have to wait to get connected to somebody. I have called them on their numbers for a Covid patient in need of an oxygen bed, but then I was exasperated and gave up. I had to then arrange for leads via Twitter.”

Also Read :
Sachin Agarwal is defrauding people looking for oxygen. Who is he?
Twitter is a Covid helpline now. What does it say about India’s healthcare systems?
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