New Delhi, India – Unlike millions of Indians who struggle for money to seek treatment for the deadly coronavirus, Savita Oberoi was neither poor nor helpless.
Even so, her upper middle class family couldn’t save her. They couldn’t find a hospital bed or oxygen in time, and the 61-year-old woman lost her life to COVID-19 on April 12.
“We knocked on the doors of at least 15 hospitals, used all our networks and contacts to organize treatment for my mother,” said Oberoi’s daughter Vandana Paliwal, 38, a teacher in West Delhi. “We finally got a bed for mom after days of trying – that too, thanks to a contact who knew the management of the hospital.”
But it was too little, too late. Within hours, Oberoi passed away. The hospital called the family in the middle of the night to tell them that she was deceased.
“All I can say is Indians are not dying from COVID-19; they die from not being treated on time. There is a big difference. I have already lost my father; and now losing my mom was a double whammy for me too, ”says Paliwal.
Despite the family’s comfortable financial situation, Paliwal recounts how they had to struggle every step of the way to get her mother treated. “Imagine the plight of the poor,” she adds.
“There are long lines everywhere – in clinics, hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies… For two days, we couldn’t even find a lab technician to come and test my mother. Even if you have the money for the COVID-19 treatment, there is no guarantee that you will be treated and live. Simply because there is not much you can do about this bureaucracy and these bottlenecks.
“Is this how a civilized country works?” she asks.
When Oberoi was finally tested for COVID-19, the result was delayed. He arrived three days later, after much pushing and pushing from Paliwal who had to follow up with the lab. Meanwhile, Oberoi’s condition deteriorated further.
“We were told the lab was struggling to keep up with the testing demands of thousands of patients. My mother already suffered from diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Systemic delays killed her.
Until the family received confirmation that Oberoi was indeed COVID positive, they could not start the correct treatment. “The wait at all levels was frustrating and infuriating. My husband and I were torn between taking care of my sick mother and working on the phone to contact hospitals and doctors. We didn’t know what to do; it was crazy, ”says Paliwal. “The whole world seemed to be crumbling around us.”
Once the family finally got a hospital bed, they sighed in relief. But Oberoi was reluctant to be admitted. She kept saying she didn’t have a good feeling about it, her daughter recalls.
“I think my mother had a hunch that she might not be released from the hospital alive. But we told him there was no other option. She had several comorbidities that had already compromised her immunity; she therefore needed specialized care. Her sixth sense turned out to be right – she was trained as a living person and came out as a “body”.
The teacher believes that the country’s medical system has totally collapsed “like a house of cards” under the second wave of coronavirus. Unsustainable black markets mushroomed overnight with treatment drugs and oxygen cylinders sold to desperate families for at least 10 times their normal price. At the same time, says Paliwal, VIP politicians and celebrities are receiving “treatment on the red carpet and the best doctors are available to them even as ordinary people suffer through no fault of their own.”
All the while, deaths continue to increase.
“I saw six to seven bodies cremated simultaneously and in a hurry while we were on the cremation ground for my mother’s last rites. There is not even dignity in death. All citizens have been abandoned in their greatest hour of need by those who hold the highest office, charged with serving and protecting them. This is the bitter take-away from this pandemic for millions of Indians. “