The courageous role and spirited role of the ambulance drivers during the deadly Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be recognised or appreciated.
The government has declared various incentive packages for the frontline workers of different sectors also as the recognition of their contribution to tackle the pandemic, but ambulance drivers – who are working relentlessly day and night since the beginning of the pandemic, taking risk not only of their own lives but also their near and dear ones – have been deprived of any such government assistance.
Sources concerned said although their contribution is no less than any other frontline workers including doctors, nurses and law enforcers, they have been neglected, both by the government and the media, since the onset of the pandemic in the country.
It has been alleged that instead of being cherished for their determined and spirited services to the society, at this difficult time of the ongoing pandemic, the ambulance drivers are often harassed while performing their duties by the law-enforcing personnel.
Md Al Amin, a driver of Aba ambulance service, was going to Mymensingh from Dhaka with a Covid-19 patient. Some police officials stopped his ambulance and quizzed him for 10 minutes. And they did not allow him to go ahead. Later Al Amin reached his destination with the help of the officials who work at 999.
This is a single example of what Al Amin faces every day on the road by police or staffs of ferries.
So far, Al Amin has carried at least 2,000 Covid-19 patients since March last year, but he is yet to get any financial support from the government or any private organisation.
"It is very expensive for me to buy the personal protective equipment (PPE) in every trip. Out of the Tk2,000 I get for a trip inside the capital, Tk1,000 is spent for purchasing the protective gears. Spending half of the income is a huge burden to me," Al Amin said.
"I have seen many ambulance drivers carrying Covid-19 patients without wearing PPE and other safety materials, despite the risk of being infected. They are being forced to do so as owners of their ambulances do not pay for PPE," he added.
Abul Hossain, another ambulance driver, told The Business Standard, "In terms of financial or any other assistance, we got nothing from any quarter. Let alone getting support, we are facing many difficulties while performing our duty during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the road, we often are harassed by police in the name of maintaining law and order. But we are serving to carry out our duty towards the nation."
Many ambulance drivers said that often, they even have to nurse the patients before the arrival of the doctors. As part of their 'additional duty', they have to go the hospitals' mortuary, which is a restricted area even for the regular hospital staff and health workers, to handle the bodies of deceased Covid patients.
We get only our daily wages. There is no appreciation, no benefit and no risk fund from the government, they said.
Md Badal Madbor, general secretary of the Bangladesh Ambulance Owners Welfare Association (BAOWA), told TBS, "We have not got any acknowledgement from the government for our contribution, especially during this pandemic situation. The government has not done anything to ensure our safety."
"Our drivers are often being harassed by law enforcers for no reasons and facing troubles in ferry ghats," he said.
"However, we are lucky enough that no ambulance driver has died of Covid-19 yet. It will be regrettable if any driver dies for the lack of safety measures, and it would make the situation difficult also to continue our services," he said.
Badal said the government hails doctors, nurses, police and even media personnel as frontline workers. But we sometimes forget the fact that the ambulance drivers are no less important than any other frontline fighters during this pandemic.
Observing that the government should recognise the contribution of ambulance drivers and helpers, he demanded government incentive for them.
According to the Bangladesh Ambulance Malik Kalyan Samity, a driver needs at least Tk1000 for safety equipment. Some owners are providing protective gears for their drivers, but even after being able to do so, maximum owners do not provide the safety equipment.
Ambulance drivers said though a set of PPE is supposed to be used for one time only; the drivers cannot afford a new set every day. So, they clean and re-use them. As a result, the drivers are at the risk of being infected.
BAOWA also blamed the government for not monitoring the trading of oxygen cylinders in the country.
They alleged that an oxygen cylinder was sold at Tk7,000 before the Covid-19 pandemic, now its price is Tk15,000. The oxygen cylinder which was sold Tk15,000 is now being sold at Tk25,000-30,000.
According to the BAOWA, there are more than 9,500 ambulances with about 20,000 drivers and helpers across the country. Of them, 4,000 ambulances are being operated in Dhaka.
Md Golam Mostafa, president of BAOWA, said most of the ambulance drivers have no institutional training to handle the patients on the way to hospitals. Many patients die due to the lack of primary treatment, like giving oxygen, inside the ambulance.
"Our drivers have no idea how to handle Covid-19 patients or how to provide the primary treatment. As a result, many patients face various difficulties inside the ambulance. But no one thinks about the very essential matter," he added.
"The ambulance drivers now are serving the needs of people with their limited knowledge. It will be good if the government arrange primary trainings for the drivers and helpers so that they can handle the critical patients before reaching to the hospitals," he said.
Dr Farid Miah, director (Hospitals and Clinics) of Directorate General of Health Services, told TBS that no one from the BAOWA contacted them for primary services and other facilities.
"We will do everything if they inform us in black and white. We have provided all the facilities to the government ambulance drivers," he said.