Stories from inside India’s Covid disaster: ‘No one has seen anything like it’

India is in the throes of one of its darkest times since gaining independence as a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 tears it apart at breakneck speed.

The country on Thursday recorded a record high of more than 386,000 new infections, as well as more than 3,500 deaths. Most experts say the actual number of deaths is much higher.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government has been accused of exacerbating the crisis by failing to prepare after a sharp drop in cases which led to claims that the country was at “end of the game” of the pandemic.

The latest wave has surpassed anything that has been endured since the first strike of Covid-19. It crossed the many social, economic and geographic divisions of the country, affecting both the rich and the poor in rural and urban areas.

The turmoil has been intensified by a crippling shortage of vital supplies such as oxygen as well as new variants of Covid-19. New lockdowns also threaten to derail the recovery of what had been the world’s fastest growing large economy.

Here are the stories of four people facing the crisis.

Aparna Hegde, doctor in Mumbai

During the first wave of last year, Aparna Hegde’s ward at the government Cama Hospital for Women and Children had around 60 patients at a time. As India’s second wave increased, the number of patients soared to 100.

She said that pressure on hospitals highlighted a lack of preparedness and chronic neglect of public health care. India devotes only about 1 percent of its gross domestic product to this sector.

“We don’t learn from our mistakes at all,” she said. “The first wave ended and we didn’t think a second wave could come.”

The circumstances are so dire that Hegde was unable to secure a hospital bed and oxygen for a young colleague with no comorbidities in Delhi in time to save him. “This young man shouldn’t have died,” she said.

Hegde, who heads Armman, a nonprofit organization that works with mothers and children, said the tension is affecting other areas of public health, with potentially long-term consequences. Childhood immunization campaigns have been derailed and pregnant mothers are struggling to receive treatment, she added.

“India doesn’t have to be like this. This is what is heartbreaking, ”she said. “That’s why it hurts even more.”

Vishwanath Chaudhary, head creamer in Varanasi

The ancient city of Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, is where many Hindus wish to be cremated, which they believe allows their souls to complete their journey to heaven and be freed. of the cycle of birth and death.

But the body flow in Hindu crematoriums, as well as in Muslim or Christian cemeteries, is implacable.

Vishwanath Chaudhary, 39, is the raja, or king, of the Dom caste, who has worked for generations in the cremation grounds of Varanasi.

With the number of bodies arriving each day rising to 100 – down from 15 last year – the scorching heat and leaping flames have become unbearable.

Vishwanath Chaudhary

“Our family has traditionally been involved in the management of crematoriums for generations. No one has ever seen anything like it, ”Chaudhary said.

“[Last year] was nothing like what we are witnessing this time. The situation is horrible, ”he added. “At such times, humanity is often lost.”

The assault is so terrible that it caused shortages of wood for the pyres, with vendors drastically raising prices.

Pie chart showing global medical oxygen requirements to treat Covid-19 as of April 28, 2021, by country and income group

Ram Vilas Gupta, migrant worker in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh

Over 15 years ago, Ram Vilas Gupta moved from his family and village in the vast Indian hinterland to metropolitan Mumbai, where he drove a taxi and lived five per room.

Like millions of other migrants, the 45-year-old was forced on an epic and desperate journey home last year after the country entered a nationwide lockdown and his savings ran out.

With India’s workload falling sharply towards the end of last year – and the economy expected to come back in force – he returned to Mumbai and quickly reported his pre-Covid monthly income of up to 18 000 rupees (243 dollars).

Ram Vilas Gupta

However, the recovery did not last. At the end of March, as Mumbai was hit hard by a second wave of Covid-19, its taxi customers stopped coming and its income dried up.

Back in his village and unemployed again, Gupta does not know how he will repay the 40,000 rupees in debt he incurred during the crisis last year. “What to do?” he said. “All my savings [are gone]. We have lived through a very difficult time.

Her biggest fear now is that the virus, which is tearing apart rural India, will reach her village, where many still doubt its existence.

“That’s why I came to the village – because of the crown. Some people say there is no corona. But I am very scared.

Line graph showing India's need for medical oxygen to treat Covid-19 from January 2020 to April 2021

Sourindra Bhattacharjee, University Professor in Delhi

Like so many others in recent weeks, Sourindra Bhattacharjee, 57, has tried unsuccessfully to find a hospital bed for her loved one.

India’s middle and upper classes generally have access to world-class health care, even though the poor depend on underfunded public hospitals.

But now even those who can afford it are struggling to seek treatment.

After the blood oxygen levels in Bhattacharjee’s diabetic older sister, Gouri, fell below 80%, the business professor saw doctors who advised him to hospitalize her. A healthy reading for oxygen in the blood is over 90%.

Sourindra Bhattacharjee

But with beds in Delhi’s hospitals full, both of her attempts to get treatment for her sister were unsuccessful. In an emergency room, he was turned back by a doctor who pointed out a young man with oxygen levels as low as 13 percent. “Look at his reading,” the doctor told him. “Now tell me, who should we choose?”

“I realized there was no point in trying,” Bhattacharjee said. “I took her home. He found an oxygen cylinder for his sister, but he did not have the necessary equipment to hang it.

His sister is always at home with him as he tries to make sure she recovers – and doesn’t infect himself. “She appears to be on the mend,” Bhattacharjee said. “God has been kind to me.”

Additional reporting by Harry Dempsey in London

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