In No Go Area

Unshakable faith in God and compassion for the ailing inspires Jameel Ahmad Digoo, an ambulance driver of the health department, to ferry Covid-19 positive patients and the deceased across Srinagar reports Khalid Bashir Gura

With a rope in his hand, Jameel A Diagoo guiding the people to get the coffin for burial. The ambulance driver of Directorate of Health Services is not only driving the Covid-19 patients to hospitals alone. He drives the dead bodies to the graveyards and ensures they are buried with dignity. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On July 10, Financial Commissioner of Health and Medical Education, Atal Dulloo presented a certificate of appreciation along with a shawl to ambulance driver of the Health Department, Jameel Ahmad Digoo. It was in appreciation of Digoo rendering exemplary services during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite facing several challenges within and outside the hospitals, the frontline workers of the health department are struggling to ensure the safety and health of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.  The health sector has countless stories of bravery and sacrifice. Digoo is one of them.

Unassuming and oblivious to the award, standing nearby his ambulance, wearing yellow N-95 mask, PPE suit, Digoo, 45, a resident of Barbarshah,  has been ferrying most of the Covid-19 positive patients and dead bodies in Srinagar, ever since the first case was detected in Kashmir. For all these more than 100 days, he has been on job, no holiday, no leave.

Struggle In Life

Digoo’s personal story is also different. He had lost his parents at a young age. His father passed away when he was barely three months old and his mother at 13.  Having been brought up by two elder sisters, Digoo had to stop his studies to earn his livelihood as a local bus conductor and driver. Later he put in his efforts and somehow became a driver in the health department.

Since March as the Coronavirus spread in Kashmir, and the death toll mounted his commitment towards work and compassion towards patients remained undiminished. It actually saw a huge improvement because the situation was completely different as people were frightened of the invisible contagion.

Always With Ambulance

Digoo’s ambulance accompanies him even during his off duty hours. “I have never said no. I park the ambulance near my house,” Diagoo said. “I am doing this work for God and I seek reward from Him. I don’t seek medals.”

Digoo said it is imperative to give the infected a dignified treatment and burial. “Someone has to initiate and bury the dead. We can’t be onlookers. One can’t abandon positive people because of stigmatization and fear,” said Digoo. He has himself been at the forefront in delivering funerals and shouldering coffins. “People should offer funeral prayer with proper precautions and social distancing but not abandon positive patients.”

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, Digoo has ferried almost 80 per cent of Covid-19 patients and dead bodies in Srinagar. In recent days as more people are reporting Covid-19 positive, his work has only increased.

Fear And Stigma

Considering the panic unleashed by the virus, Digoo said he assures the patients that they need not worry. “I tell them that their tests will soon turn negative and they may recuperate,” he said. He regrets the people’s behaviour towards Coronavirus patient because he said it exacerbates the ordeal and pain.

“At times older people face difficulties in treading a path or boarding an ambulance, and since I was orphaned young I can’t see the elderly struggle and abandoned at this stage of life,” said Digoo. “Many positive patients take into consideration my safety and ask me to maintain a safe distance but I assure them that I am fully protected with personal protective equipment PPE and faith in God.”

In this June 20, 2020 photograph, Jameel A Diagoo an ambulance driver of the Directorate of Health Services, is shown starting to disinfect his ambulance after the burial of a Covid-19 person. He is driving the Covid-19 patients to hospitals in Srinagar and also driving the dead bodies to the graveyards and participates in their dignified burial. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Digoo said that initially he was taken aback by the way people reacted to the unseen deadly virus. “Panic had gripped everyone and wherever I went to ferry positive patients, people would run away at most of the places.  At some places, people closed doors at the sight of an ambulance,” Digoo said. “Once I had left my ambulance window ajar and people in the vicinity of positive patient scolded me for it. I was shocked by the way society perceived and treated the infected”.

At many places, Digoo said, he had to convince the unwilling positive patients to come to the hospital or get quarantined. Many patients gave a tough time as they deluded themselves to be negative and thought their tests were false. “I have had to request them and their families at times. Most of them were even unwilling to go to designated health centres.”

Not Easy Life

Before the pandemic Digoo’s job was easy. He used to occasionally get a call to transport patients to the hospital. Or at times to drive the corpses to their respective homes from the hospital.

As per protocol, CMO Srinagar is designated to take steps to bury the positive dead bodies. When he lifts a corpse of Covid-19, he is the only official from the department so he has to arrange almost everything at his own level as per the protocol. “I make sure to arrange four persons along with family members who can shoulder the coffin,” said Digoo. Digoo’s phone keeps buzzing. He gets calls to ferry either Covid-19 positive patients or dead bodies.

However, he also faces peculiar problems back home. His family, neighbours, relatives are scared of him. “I am frightened too,” said Digoo. “But I keep telling them and myself that it’s our way of helping people during this time. I am grateful to God for keeping my family safe up till now.”

His drive with corpses is different. His ambulance follows a municipal vehicle that disinfects the belt and fumigates around. A police vehicle usually accompanies to ensure that there are no problems. Once the grave is ready, he joins the funerals and helps in lowering the dead persons in the grave. Once that is over, he ensures his vehicle is fumigated and then he chases the next assignment.

At Home

Being a frontline warrior, he is mindful of the risk of contracting the virus and this apprehension dominates most of his conversations at home. “I am happy when my two sons, the elder one 14 years, and the younger 12 years, receive me every day once I am back from a hectic day at the hospital.”

FC Health Atul Daloo honouring Jameel Ahmad Diagoo, the ambulance driver, who has managed most of the Covid-19 cases – both infected and death – in Srinagar. Photo: DIPR

In the evening as he reaches home Digoo first take off PPE, sanitizes himself and then takes a shower. “After a day-long spent transporting patients, dead bodies and taking a part in burials and finally seeing myself returning home in the evening gives me contentment and peace,” said Digoo adding he has chosen to self-quarantine himself and his family given the contagious nature of the virus.

Digoo has forbidden any of his family members from attending any communal event or travelling to relatives or coming in close contact with other people. “I don’t want other people to suffer because of me. We talk to relatives over the phone. We don’t visit any of them and very few of them knock our doors,” said Digoo.

However, since the onset of the pandemic, Digoo has not been tested for the disease. “Initially people in my own department preferred distance from me as I am always with Covid-19 positive patients but now they don’t,” said Digoo.

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