New Delhi: The settings are different but the stories are identical.
Sujata Reddy, 58, lives in a three-storey mansion with fluted columns and a pool in Vasant Vihar, an elite quarter of the Indian capital. She is very rich and counts tycoons, diplomats and senior civil servants among her close friends and neighbours.
Swapnil Rastogi, 26, lives in Lucknow, more than 500 kilometres away, but his home is a two-room rented space with no windows in a dark narrow lane where he lives with his parents.
Relatives console each other at a cremation in Jammu, India.Credit:AP
Both Reddy and Rastogi’s elderly parents contracted COVID-19 around the middle of April and both were reducing to begging, Rastogi for oxygen for his 59-year-old father in the smaller clinics of Lucknow and Reddy for a bed for her 97-year-old father in the top private hospitals of Delhi.
“I called up everyone I knew and their uncle. I worked the phones for days. I knew, given his age, that my father would need doctors, medicines, injections, oxygen, medical support, but no one had a bed. At one point I was begging the daughter of the owner of a top hospital, who was in New York, for a bed but she said her best friend had died for lack of a bed,” Reddy said.
Rastogi, on the last day of his father’s life, kept patting and reassuring him. He could see the panic in his eyes as his oxygen level kept dipping. “Papa, please be patient, please hold on. We will get you on a ventilator,” he kept repeating.
Swapnil Rastogi, left, could not procure oxygen for his father, Raj Kumar, right, in Lucknow, India.
Rastogi weeps as he remembers Raj Kumar’s last words: “Have you bought any oranges for your mother?”
He died at home after Rastogi, despite all his efforts and pleading with hospital officials, failed to find him an ICU bed.
In a country known for extreme inequalities, the second wave of COVID-19 has been a great leveller, engulfing rich and poor in almost equal measure in a shuddering helplessness as their loved ones die for lack of oxygen or treatment in what has been a fortnight of pure hell.
In bitter words that are being voiced all over India as the pandemic runs riot, Rastogi said: “It wasn’t the virus that killed my father, it was the lack of treatment. If I had found a bed, he would be alive with me today.”
People wait to receive COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India, on Thursday. Several states have reported running out of vaccine doses.Credit:AP
India’s poor have always dreaded illness. They know they are unlikely to get good medical treatment, making them fatalistic about dying. The rich also dread serious illness but, in one way, suffer less panic because they know that, with money and contacts, they can access the best doctors and hospitals.
But in this frightening and catastrophic wave, the wealthy and the middle class have felt almost as vulnerable and helpless as Rastogi. Until now, contacts always worked – often they are the only thing that works in an emergency. Even if someone like Reddy does not know an influential person herself, she will know someone who does and the job will be done.
But not this time. This is a time no Indian has ever seen before.
The rich and powerful also have had to resort to social media for information on which hospital might have a bed or where to get oxygen. WhatsApp has been a lifeline when all the hospital and government helplines have been so flooded with calls that there is no point trying to get through.
Their sense of vulnerability at not being able to protect the people they love has shot up as they have watched the images on TV and read the heartbreaking stories online.
Pradip Bijalwan, for example, was a doctor who spent the past decade treating the homeless in New Delhi. He treated them through the first wave last year too. When he tested positive in April and his oxygen saturation levels started dipping, he tried and failed to find a bed. He died at home.
Or Syed Yusuf, 34, who contracted the disease last year and felt so grateful to have recovered that he donated plasma twice. When his mother developed respiratory problems, he tried six hospitals in New Delhi for a bed while brandishing three bits of paper. One was his mother’s test result. The others were the certificates of appreciation he received for his plasma donation. He hoped the latter would add weight to his pleas, give him an edge in the survival of the fittest being played out on the streets outside hospital gates.
“When others needed me, I was there […] I donated plasma twice, only because I thought I would be saving someone’s life. But when I needed help, where was everybody?” Yusuf said bitterly to an Indian Express reporter after his mother died.
Or Mukul Vyas, who rushed his mother to a hospital in Delhi on Tuesday. After three hours she had still not been admitted. She died in the auto-rickshaw, with Vyas pummelling her chest to see if she was alive.
Beside himself with grief, he told reporters: “They [hospital officials] kept asking me for formalities. Send this paper on WhatsApp, send that paper. Was I going to do that or was I going to get help for my mother?”
An affluent middle-aged couple in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh were turned away by six hospitals when they searched for a bed with oxygen. They got into their SUV and drove 850 kilometres to West Bengal.
This was something Reddy too was considering at one point when her father’s oxygen saturation levels refused to stabilise: head out of Delhi and drive to a city, any city, that might have an ICU bed.
“Some of the doctors I spoke to told me to try Jaipur [300 kilometres away] in case I got lucky there. But I couldn’t face putting my dad’s frail body through such a long and tiring car ride. I got lucky and managed to wangle an oxygen concentrator to keep at home and stable,” Reddy said.
India is simply collapsing from the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. The country has reported more than 18.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year. More than 204,000 people have died of it, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The numbers keep rising inexorably, notching more than 370,000 cases on Thursday, after an average of around 320,000 new daily infections for a week.
The experts say the infection wave may peak mid-May, but that seems an eternity away. In any case, other experts predict the country’s under-reporting is so serious that it might already have 500 million cases right now.
No one has been spared. Top journalist Barkha Dutt is a household name. On Tuesday, she lost her father to the disease. Dutt knows the who’s who of the entire country through her long journalistic career but she and her sister were reduced to begging for a bed. “Bring your own oxygen,” some hospitals told her.
Eventually, and not without a struggle, she found a bed at Medanta, a medical complex in Gurgaon, just south of New Delhi, but her father died. “When I went to cremate my father, I saw three families fighting over logs and over a patch of ground to place the body,” Dutt told me.
The virus has democratised death too. With the crematoriums in the big cities flooded with six to 10 times the normal number of bodies, rich and poor are all being consigned to the flames in the same ad hoc, indecent manner, with no mourners present nor any ceremony to honour the dead.
Parking lots and scrub land next to the facilities are being used for the funeral pyres, massed row upon row – a macabre site that has frightened Indians and moved the world.
Crematorium officials have never seen such horrific scenes. “The more space we create, the more the bodies keep coming in. We can’t keep up,” said one exhausted official.
Sushil Gupta took his 50-year-old sister’s body to a crematorium in Ghaziabad, just outside the capital, and was shocked at the dancing flames and smoke filling the sky while corpses lay in body bags on the ground, waiting their turn.
“We are twins. She knew me better than I knew myself. I wanted to stay for a while to be with her but the heat from the other pyres was so unbearable I had to leave. I left without giving her the respect she deserved,” he said.
The obituary page of The Times of India, a daily broadsheet, says all you need to know about the toll. The death notices usually occupy about a quarter or a third of the page. On April 28, they filled the entire page.
After stabilising her father, Reddy is now struggling with her mother, who not only has the symptoms but has become hysterical with fear. She told Reddy: “Your father and I have lived a life of dignity. I don’t want us leaving this house thrown into a dirty ambulance with other bodies.”
Reddy didn’t have the heart to tell her that ambulances are impossible to get. It was more likely to be a ramshackle van.
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