Amrit Dhillon is a writer based in New Delhi.
I spent most of last week reporting on the epic proportions of the calamity that has engulfed India. Top hospitals have run out of oxygen. Crematoria have been burning bodies hastily in adjacent parking lots.
Families with patients have run for five to 10 hours to big cities such as Mumbai or the capital of New Delhi, begging hospital workers for a bed or for oxygen. Failing to find either, people have died on park benches outside hospitals and in auto-rickshaws while waiting. The managers of New Delhi’s top private hospitals – the ones that offer advanced facilities such as robotic surgery and treat people from all over the world – were reduced to going on television to plead for basic needs. “We want to save our patients, but we can’t without oxygen,” said one manager, who said the stress of knowing he had only two hours’ supply was unbearable.
So when I developed a scratchy throat and body ache last Wednesday, I thought: Uh-oh, not a good time to get COVID-19.
I felt fearful when my symptoms began. My friends and I had already realized that none of us had a plan if one of us, or someone we loved, were to wake up at night gasping for breath. Even doctors have been failing to find beds or oxygen for their own loved ones. Every other person now seems to have the virus; our days are spent in agony, exchanging WhatsApp messages about who is the latest to test positive, amid desperate appeals on the platform for information about hospital beds, intensive-care unit space, remdesivir, oxygen and ambulances.
The entire country has descended into a place of hellish suffering, and it has happened with unbelievable speed. In February and March, my friends and I were meeting for coffee outdoors, and some semblance of normalcy had returned. The figures were reassuring; India had defied all the apocalyptic predictions made last year that the virus would roar through India’s urban slums and its countryside, inflicting a devastating loss of life.
Miraculously and mysteriously, India had escaped pretty lightly, while Europe and North America found themselves on their knees. Yes, Indians did suffer and die in the first wave, but nowhere near the levels predicted. And after the peak of the pandemic in September, fresh daily infections kept falling until they’d reached 10,000 in January – a small number for a country with a population of 1.4 billion. Vaccination campaigns had begun, too. By the start of 2021, India was in a good place – no, a very good place.
Everything started to go wrong toward the end of March. On April 1, India recorded 81,413 new infections and 468 deaths. On April 8, 131,830 cases and 802 deaths were reported; a week after that, 219,913 new cases and 1,156 deaths; and on April 24, the numbers had exploded, with 332,394 cases and 2,255 deaths registered. Cases rose more than 300 per cent between April 1 and 22, and deaths by nearly 400 per cent.
Even supplies of common medicines have started running short. One friend who needed Meftal Forte for her stubbornly high temperature had to call a half-dozen pharmacies before finding it. The steroid Medrol, which another friend’s father needed, was unavailable. Never have so many Indians felt so helpless about their fates.
In the space of a few months, India has gone from patting itself on the back to becoming a COVID-19 hell, attracting the world’s bewildered compassion. This latest wave has been a great equalizer, too. No contacts in high places and no amount of money, string-pulling, begging or legitimate, emotional pleas have led to special access to a bed.
The individual tragedies have been heart-breaking. Pradip Bijalwan, a doctor who had spent the past decade treating the homeless in New Delhi and had continued to do so during the first wave last year, tested positive for COVID-19 in April. When his oxygen saturation levels started dipping, he tried and failed to find a bed. He died at home on April 23.
Syed Yusuf, 34, contracted the disease last year and felt so grateful to have recovered that he donated plasma twice. When his mother developed respiratory problems last week, he tried six hospitals in New Delhi for a bed, carrying three bits of paper with him: his mother’s test result and two certificates he’d received for his plasma donations. He hoped the latter would sway someone into compassion. It didn’t work; she died on Sunday.
“When others needed me, I was there. … I donated plasma twice, only because I thought I would be saving someone’s life,” Mr. Yusuf said bitterly to an Indian Express reporter. “But when I needed help, where was everybody?”
Mr. Yusuf’s mother need not have died if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had not been so overconfident. Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party believed they had defeated the pandemic in January and even went ahead and campaigned in elections in five states, along with other political parties who, having believed the same, are equally culpable.
As late as April 18, Mr. Modi was attending gigantic rallies in West Bengal, where no COVID-19 protocols were being followed. “I’ve never seen such huge crowds,” he said with delight. It was, it turns out, a terrible thing to say amid the latest, savage wave. On the day of that rally, India notched 230,000 new infections.
Earlier, he had been urging Indians to stay at home – and rightly so. But in his eagerness to win power in the politically important state of West Bengal, Mr. Modi abandoned his public-health messaging.
He failed to call off the hugely popular Kumbh Mela festival, and he has been accused of doing so to pander to Hindu sentiments. It took more than two weeks and an exponential surge in cases for Mr. Modi to belatedly suggest that the millions of worshippers should go home; it has since become a superspreader event.
The Indian public has made mistakes, too. Too many stopped wearing masks prematurely, and too many went to crowded markets and festivals. Now so many have the virus that the health system is near collapse.
Even those who took stringent precautions have caught it, God knows how.
Last weekend, I received my COVID-19 test results. I’m positive.
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