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The COVID-19 Disaster in India: Chronicles of Agony and Pain on the Ground

India’s current level of suffering was not inevitable. Voices from the ground tell stories of mismanagement, neglect, and apathy.

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The COVID-19 Disaster in India: Chronicles of Agony and Pain on the Ground

Multiple funeral pyres of those who died of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for the mass cremation of coronavirus victims, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

As the tsunami of COVID-19 cases hit the second most populous country in the world, an unprecedented situation is unfolding for the current generation of Indians who have not witnessed chaos at this level. Uncountable bodies have piled on the streets; people are struggling to find spaces at funeral grounds for their loved ones as pyres are being built in makeshift crematoriums. There is an acute shortage of oxygen across the country, which is generating a public health nightmare.

Public images abound of people experiencing a catalogue of mistreatment and denial of justice, the trauma of which will remain etched in memories for decades to come. The human catastrophe paints a grim picture, where people are left to die and families are pleading with the hospital authorities for their relatives who are desperately ill.

Even as cases spiked, the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained in data denial. Modi hosted huge political rallies without wearing a face mask, flouted social distancing, and endorsed mass gatherings by thanking the public for turning up in huge numbers. His government encouraged thousands of Hindu pilgrims to gather along the Ganges River for the Kumbh Mela festival, which started in January and ran well into April. Huge errors were at play, which could have been avoided, had the government not taken a nonchalant attitude toward the virus, with no planning, social support, or accountability. Instead, the Modi government deliberately ignored the scientific figures and endorsed traditional methods as the cure to the virus.

The country has recorded the highest one-day tally of new COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world – a record it has broken again and again over recent days. India is also seeing its highest number of deaths per day since the pandemic started.

“There are no hospital beds,” lamented Pradeep Sharma standing outside Vimhans Nayati Super Speciality Hospital in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. “I have just come here for my 46-year-old, brother who was diagnosed with COVID-19 at Dheendyal Hosital in West Delhi. I am here because they ran out of beds there too.”

“I don’t know what to do,” he said, covering his eyes with both hands and crying unconsolably.

“He needed Remdesivir [an anti-viral drug used to treat COVID-19 patients in hospitals] because he had clots in his lungs. The medicine is not available in the hospital and at the pharmacies. Remdesivir is not available anywhere in Delhi. I bought six of these from a black market,” Sharma further added.

As recently as March 2021, Modi staked a claim for India to function as a “world pharmacy”; however it is now struggling to provide crucial medicine to its own citizens. A report from India suggested that Delhi police had arrested many pharmacists for illegally stocking Remdesivir to be sold in the black market.

The second wave of COVID-19 is driven by a double mutant variant, but the damage has been compounded due to the negligence of Modi and his government. After the first wave, the Indian government almost immediately declared its victory over the virus, diminishing the pandemic’s seriousness instead of continuing to be combating it. Now drug and oxygen shortages have brought the country’s health care system to its knees.

In the early hours of April 21, Sharma’s brother died at the hospital:

My brother died at 4:00 a.m. in the morning and I only discovered this at 10:00 a.m. when I arrived at the hospital with Remdesivir. The hospital did not inform me because there were 30 other families whose relatives had died at the same time. I was angry and wanted to speak to the manager because I could not find my brother’s mortal remains, but the hospital had hired bouncers who pushed me around. When I did manage to find my brother in a mortuary there were tons of bodies lying around on top of one another, due to lack of space. Then I found my brother’s dead body that was covered in a white sheet. I had to step on other dead bodies to get to him. I was only allowed to take his body to a crematorium approved by the hospital in their ambulance. But the crematorium had run out of wood. We started collecting weeds and grass that we used to cremate my brother.

While this article was being written on April 24, Sharma also lost his father to COVID-19. Still in shock, he told The Diplomat: “There is no space left in funeral grounds and I have been asked to keep the body at home for two days. I am in the queue. No one wanted to help me carry the body due to the fears of catching the infection. My friends and relatives all refused to touch the body. There is no space in the mortuary and my father’s body will be at home until I have worked something out.”

The sudden deaths of hundreds and thousands of poor Indians are not an outcome of the pandemic alone. This is the result of systemic apathy and mismanagement in the medical system – a system that is oblivious to the needs of the poor.

“There are bodies piling everywhere. Everyone I know is infected, including my daughter and I. How did we get here?” lamented Puja, who lives in Delhi. “Modi ne akhirkar India ko sadak pe utar hi diya” – after all, Modi has brought India to its knees.

During the first wave, the government’s social protection measures had massive holes, leaving many without any safety net.

Puja runs a small boutique from her home as an informal worker and was not covered under the government’s social protection scheme during the first wave. Her work was significantly affected, and she had to take loans from friends to pay salaries for her staff, who belong to marginalized classes and are at risk of losing their homes.

“I have no savings left and money to pay for my daughters’ education,” Puja told The Diplomat. She feels that the “Modi government did not do enough for women in similar situation. We were left to fend for ourselves with no social support.”

During this time, Puja also discovered that she had benign tumors in her abdomen. She “was waiting for the money to come in, to get the tumors to be surgically removed.” When she was finally able to generate funds, the second wave hit, which meant she is not in the list of priority patients. Puja will have to wait until things normalize before she can access medical care.

“I have these lumps in my belly that I can feel. They are bulging. The doctor said two weeks ago that I must get operated [on] as soon as possible but I didn’t have funds and now there are no beds,” she explained.

At a time of global emergency, it was vital that the crisis response must not leave anyone behind. Yet the pandemic affected some communities more than others and the social protection responses by the BJP-led government have ignored the particular needs of women and minorities. We are seeing more and more reports showing how the humanitarian crisis has surreptitiously contributed to inequalities and exacerbated current vulnerabilities of women and Muslims.

Muslim communities were never specifically considered under the social protection schemes despite the vulnerabilities faced by them. Widespread discrimination, including unequal wages and restrictive labor laws, coupled with a lack of social protection relating to unemployment and sick leave for informal workers have long hindered women and Muslims from accessing employment. These existing inequalities have been made even worse by the virus, resulting in adverse health and economic impacts.

A Muslim vendor working in New Delhi reported that a Muslim religious gathering of Tabligi Jamat sparked more social ostracization of Muslims after scapegoating from Modi and his government’s supporters: “No one wanted to buy vegetables from us anymore because we are Muslim because of the fear created by Modi that we are spreading the virus. But not one showed anger towards Hindus gathering in large numbers that might have caused this chaos.”

The biggest task for the Modi government now is to keep the COVID-19 numbers low, given the peak is yet to come.

The testimonies of people’s suffering suggests that Modi is losing his creditability. Social media hashtags #ModiResign #ModiMadeDisaster are gaining steam. With the current government’s failure to act, the fissures in Indian society are likely to expand and could become divisive. The fears of ordinary Indians are mounting, and not just in terms of this medical emergency. The political fall-out from the uncontrollable death toll will add to the rising angst among the suffering population.

It’s hard to say if Modi’s days are numbered, given his previous popularity in this Hindu majority country. However, media coverage of his ongoing debasement can’t be ignored. There is an awakening underway amid this humanitarian crisis.