MOSCOW (AP) — When his mother began deteriorating from the coronavirus two weeks ago, Bektour Iskender knew that hospitals in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, were full. So he turned to Twitter for advice.
He was directed to a volunteer group that made house calls with oxygen concentrators for patients with trouble breathing. Two hours later, volunteers in full protective gear arrived and showed Iskender how to use one of the machines he had borrowed from friends of his relatives. His mother started improving soon after using it.
“I later spoke to my friend, a doctor, and he said that it was probably a breakthrough moment,” said the 35-year-old Iskender, co-founder of the Kloop online news site.
One of the poorest countries to emerge from the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with the outbreak pushing the Central Asian nation's outdated and poorly funded health care system to near collapse.
Armies of volunteers, however, have played a major role in filling the gaps in dealing with the crisis in the country of 6.5 million people.
“For such a small country with limited resources, volunteers did a colossal amount of work,” said Bermet Baryktabasova, a medical expert in Bishkek. “They saved thousands of lives.”
When the virus broke out in Kyrgyzstan in March, authorities imposed a tight lockdown with curfews and a heavy police presence.
With few resources to protect those who lost income while businesses were closed, officials started to ease lockdown restrictions in early May, when the country reported a little over 1,000 coronavirus cases and 12 deaths, citing economic fallout and public frustration over the lockdown. Some said the government feared unrest in the country, which has a history of political uprisings and ethnic violence.
As offices, markets and malls reopened and public transportation resumed, people rushed to get back to normal life, including traditionally large weddings and funerals that typically draw hundreds of people. Within weeks, several hundred new virus cases were being reported daily, instead of only dozens. This month, when the government began including suspected cases in the count, those figures jumped to over 1,000 a day.
By late July, Kyrgyzstan had reported over 33,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths.
The teetering health care system, with only 2,036 hospital beds for virus patients in late June, started to collapse.
“The number of patients in grave condition continues to grow," tweeted Dr. Yegor Borisov, ICU head at Bishkek's Emergency Medicine Center, on July 11. Medical teams were working “to the point of exhaustion,” and fainting from fatigue and the heat in their protective suits, he said.
Patients complained it was impossible to find available beds in hospitals. Ambulance services didn't answer phone calls. Waits at pharmacies and outpatient clinics lasted for hours, if not days. Hospitals lacked drugs and equipment, and were often "just beds and walls,” Baryktabasova said.
That's when thousands of ordinary people rushed to help. Hotels and restaurants were converted into facilities for patients. Activists found protective gear, drugs, medical supplies, and food and water for medical workers.
Prominent soccer player Aidana Otorbayeva went on Facebook, urging help for doctors and nurses. “I’m ready to volunteer. Help medical workers, run their errands, bring them food. … Relieve their burden at least in some way,” she wrote.
Since then, nearly 600 people have joined an online group called “Together.” Dozens filled in as orderlies at seven Bishkek medical facilities.
“A common disaster united everyone, and people are doing their best not to stay away and help each other,” said Meder Myrzayev, a coordinator of the group.
At night, they took people to hospitals, in place of the absent ambulances.
“They don’t come in time and people are simply suffocating at home,” Valeria Sadygaliyeva said of the shortage of ambulances. She was the founder of the Volunteer Rescue Squad, a Bishkek-based group that before the pandemic focused on searching for missing people.
When the surge of new infections hit Bishkek, her team of 15 volunteers — six of them with first-responder training and several professional medical workers among them — converted cars into makeshift ambulances equipped with oxygen tanks. They started ferrying people in respiratory distress to hospitals.
The calls from the sick initially were overwhelming, Sadygaliyeva told The Associated Press.
“We are weather-beaten folks, and we’ve seen some grief in our days, but at first it was hard to deal with such a large amount of patients in grave condition," she said.
Sadygaliyeva said her team worked all night on July 22 to hospitalize six people. The volunteers spoke to many others who didn’t require hospital treatment over the course of the week.
Her squad is not the only one. Local online communities and chats last week were abuzz with people offering rides to the hospital or to bring an oxygen machine to those in need.
Auto importer Ruslan uulu Manasbek used his own money to convert his car into a makeshift ambulance. With business withering during the lockdown, Manasbek spent nearly $140 -- the equivalent of more than half of last year's average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan -- to install an oxygen tank in his car so he could carry people with breathing difficulties to hospitals.
Working around the clock to transport the sick, Manasbek said he is trying to avoid contact with other members of his family.
“I have a beloved wife, a daughter, a mother. But I’m trying not to go home (as much) — I’m working in the hot ‘red’ zone, in direct contact with those infected, and I’m afraid to go home,” he said.
By the end of last week, the outbreak appeared to ease, with the daily number of new infections stabilizing at about 800-900. On Tuesday, health officials reported 548 new infections.
The government opened additional medical facilities, relieving some pressure, and Russia deployed medical teams and equipment to help.
Hospitals reported fewer patients, and volunteers said they weren't getting as many calls at night from people gasping for breath. Experts interviewed by the AP all credited activists for filling the gaps in the response to the outbreak.
“On one hand, we had this collapse of the health care system, but on the other hand, the nation rallied around it, and the support for ordinary people was immense,” said Dr. Sultan Stambekov, a surgical oncologist who has spent over a month working in a coronavirus ward.
Iskender echoes that sentiment. His mother ended up not needing to be hospitalized and has since recovered. “She is eager to go out for a walk,” he said with a laugh.
“I think that when we win the battle (against the virus), we will see what huge role this mobilization of the civil society played," Iskender said.
Altynai Sagyndykova in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, contributed.