The Sant Waryam Singh Dahiya Memorial Global Hospital pictured in the city of Shahkot, India. Credit: Courtesy of Rajiv Aggarwal

Every fifteen minutes, for days on end, Lalit Singla heard the cry of ambulance sirens from his home in Gurugram, just southwest of New Delhi.

Singla, a former Plymouth resident who moved back to India during the pandemic, watched as COVID-19 infections climbed in his country.

“It was a really, really, devastating situation for a lot of people in India, irrespective of what is their financial condition,” Singla said. “Patients were literally on the road, driving from hospital to hospital, trying to find a bed or trying to find some source of oxygen.”

He knew something had to be done — and quickly. With the backing of the Minnesota nonprofit the Chance Foundation, of which he is a board member, Singla set up a COVID-19 helpline in just a day. 

“These things cannot be possible until you feel that you are in a life and death situation,” said Singla.

Prayaas, the helpline, is available to anyone in India through WhatsApp. People can text or call about pretty much anything COVID-19 related: for an ambulance, for oxygen concentrators, even to find the antiviral drug Remdesivir.

Singla said Prayaas took over 650 requests within the first 25 days of launch in late April. The requests came from all over India, some late into the night. He got a call from a woman who learned she had COVID-19, after cremating her husband that morning. He had died of the same virus.

“What do you do? I cannot just hang up my phone and go to sleep. No one can,” Singla said. He and the volunteers would stay up and “do whatever it takes” to get people to the hospital.

“The moment they got into the ambulance, that is when I went to sleep,” he said.

The helpline is one strategy the Chance Foundation has initiated to tackle the overwhelming scale of the pandemic in India. 

In rural communities where COVID-19 testing is misunderstood or stigmatized, the foundation has sent home care kits. When they learned of families whose breadwinners had died of COVID-19, they built a registry to keep track of the women and children affected to provide them assistance. For the women, Singla’s team would provide work training so they could find a job.

Founded in 2015, the Chance Foundation has primarily focused on bettering the health and education of children in India. But since the second wave of COVID-19 began in April, the foundation has shifted its focus to mitigating the impact of the pandemic in India, said president Rajiv Aggarwal. 

The foundation’s first priority was obtaining oxygen concentrators, which filter out nitrogen from the air to provide a steady stream of oxygen to the user. The organization sent $15,000 to non-governmental organizations in India to buy the concentrators.

But because of the many-headed crises caused by the pandemic, board members felt that the foundation needed to expand its efforts. Aggarwal, a doctor living in Edina, saw that private and government hospitals were overrun with patients. The private hospitals, some which charged $800-1,000 a day, were largely inaccessible to most of the population.

The foundation’s contribution was to open a 40-bed hospital specifically for the “poorest of the poor” COVID-19 patients, located in the semi-rural city of Shahkot in the state of Punjab. Through a friend of a friend, Aggarwal learned there was an already existing outpatient hospital; the Chance Foundation provided funding to upgrade the facility.

“When you’re on the ground … you know the requirements, the needs that come your way. And they say, you know, necessity is the mother of invention,” Aggarwal said.

The Sant Waryam Singh Dahiya Memorial Global Hospital began accepting COVID-19 patients in mid-May. The foundation initially agreed to cover the hospital’s expenses of $20,000, but with a decline in cases the hospital no longer needs financial support, said Aggarwal. 

“We don’t know what happens tomorrow, but today, things are settling down in our part of the city,” said orthopedic surgeon Navjot Singh, whose family owns the hospital building. 

After months of topping the list of COVID-19 case counts in Punjab, the Jalandhar district, where Shahkot is located, saw less than 100 COVID-19 cases in early June, according to the Tribune India, an Indian English-language newspaper. 

Singh said the hospital is “equipped and ready” in the case of another COVID-19 wave. 

“[If] we can help somebody, even a single family, [we] will be very thankful to God,” Singh said.

Since April, the Chance Foundation has raised over $90,000 through a variety of sources, like its Facebook page and workplace fundraisers.

“I’m greatly humbled and I’m so thankful that we have so many compassionate and caring people in the community,” Aggarwal said. “It has evolved into quite a big project where we are able to help multiple facets of this problem, and we have enough funds that we can do it justice.”

But the Chance Foundation’s work is not over. Board members say their next steps are to convince people in India to get vaccinated and to provide resources to families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

The foundation is working with graduate students in India to research what the next wave of infections could look like, and how to prevent it.

“The worst is still behind us, but we don’t know what the third wave will look like. We are preparing ourselves. How can we be proactive instead of reactive?” asked Singla.

Aggarwal said all his friends in Minnesota have a story about a friend or relative who had the virus or lost a loved one in India.

“There is no family in India that is untouched,” Aggarwal said. “We will keep doing what we can.”

Tiffany is currently a senior at the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in the Pioneer Press, MPR, MinnPost, the Minnesota Daily, Insight News, and Sahan Journal. Follow her on Twitter @tiffanybu1.