Real, Unreal and Surreal: Open Your Eyes, India

I write this as I deal with loss and grieve the deaths that swirl around us day after day, deaths that were avoidable.

A close relative in his mid-fifties was recently buried after a brief brush with COVID-19 and a broad one with the health ecosystem of the country’s capital and the National Capital Region (NCR). At the cremation ground, the hands of one of the three responsible for cremating the bodies were shaking as he tried to fill the details. When asked if he needed help, he broke down: “When 20-25 bodies came every day, we thought the number was high. But now almost 200 come every day. How do we three deal with those?”

Hours before, while collecting my relative’s body from the hospital, it did not look like his body – the plastic wrapper was opened on request and it turned out to be someone else!

It took the hospital staff more than an hour to find his body. And yet, it was difficult to blame them for the mistake – they are dealing with an unprecedented number of dead bodies and working overtime amidst the risk to their own lives and their loved ones. It is hard to fathom how they are still able to do what they are doing. And that’s why there was no point in fighting over the fact that body parts were not even sealed – his nose had been bleeding and the entire body was red with blood.

But how was one to take the body in such a state to the cremation ground, where his wife and son were waiting?

Upon begging and on paying a good sum of money, the body was cleaned and repacked for the last rites. While waiting, I saw a doctor inform a woman about the death of the person she had brought in. When the woman broke down, the doctor held her and also started crying. They did not know each other – it was a shared moment of grief, frustration and helplessness.

Soon after my relative and a few others in his family, including his son in his early twenties, tested positive, he started having breathing problems. His oxygen saturation levels dropped. His son called for an ambulance and so started a night-long search for a hospital as his father gasped for breath. They finally found a bed in a government hospital in Ghaziabad after paying a good sum to an ambulance driver using Google Pay.

Also read: With Doctors and Patients Left Unattended, Who Is Indian Healthcare Caring For?

When my relative’s oxygen saturation level started dropping the next day despite oxygen being supplied, the doctors advised moving him to another hospital where he could find a ventilator bed. The search began – a number of young relatives called hundreds of hospitals across NCR through the night to find a bed without success.

Finally, the next morning, one was arranged in a private hospital in Noida on the intervention of another relative – an IPS officer in Odisha. With the ventilator, the oxygen saturation went up. But by then, portions of his kidney, brain and lungs had already been damaged. Next, the doctors asked for a particular medicine – the search started anew. It was procured by paying Rs 1,50,000 for a printed price of Rs 35,000. The next day saw us scrambling for a plasma donor and another donor the next day.

Death still came in the form of multi-organ failure. It came in the middle of the night when lakhs in the country were still awake, waiting to know if their loved ones were showing signs of improvement.

For my relative, it took one week for his world to come to an end. Meanwhile, his wife is doing her best to cope but she occasionally breaks down and calls close relatives to come meet her so that she can get some comfort. But because necessary precautions need to be taken, the family is waiting for them to test negative – and have no choice but to follow safety protocol no matter how heartbreaking the situation is.

Many of you, I am sure, are not shocked reading this account. You perhaps have your own version of this same story – another city or another hospital. A little twist here and a little twist there, but ultimately it is the same story.

Don’t you think that this is the most dangerous sign for a society: the normalisation of the most shocking, most inhuman, most unbelievable? There are still so many who are trying to claim that it is not the State but the unpredictability of the virus (despite witnessing the devastating second wave in other countries) that is responsible for this state of affairs. The moral bankruptcy from the top down, the absence of any recourse and no remorse on the side of the rulers who have been busy crafting their entry to the ‘infallible’ parts of India while completely abdicating their responsibility is still invisible to too many faithful followers.

For the first time in the history of independent India, states are being asked to procure their own vaccines at a higher rate, at a time when the economies of the states are seriously compromised due to post-Covid slowdowns coupled with the fact that it is the Union government that controls a majority of the fiscal revenue.

The example of an astute bureaucrat in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra has surfaced – he planned and acted on the expansion of facilities, including oxygen plans and ICU beds, by pooling existing resources towards the district’s preparedness for the impending second wave. The measures taken have been successful in the district having a much lower number of serious cases and death rate in comparison to the rest of Maharashtra.

This clearly establishes that what we needed was just a little bit of foresight, conviction, planning and action.

Many are questioning the relevance of Indian Premier League matches going on in a bio-bubble, calling it surreal. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not. But it is indeed surreal to see many of us still believing our democratic rulers when they claim that they had conquered the coronavirus once and are going to conquer it again even as they spend their resources on gaining power in different parts of India.

Jyotsna Jha lives and works in Bangalore.

Featured image credit: TheWire/Seraj Ali