Updated: May 4, 2021 9:10:33 am
The wood has run out, much like the oxygen, as India waits to cremate its COVID dead. Bodies pile up in the cremation ghats and in graveyards, as frantic relatives say goodbyes to their loved ones. When their turn finally comes, they wait and watch from a distance, crying but mostly too numb, with no more than a handful of family members or friends in sight to console them. The smoke and the dust rise, momentarily turning the air a dull grey and choking their grief.
Our phones buzz every day, our social media is bursting with people asking for oxygen, medicines, ambulances and hope. We try to find leads, medicines, cylinders, and beds. It’s a wild goose chase. Sometimes people don’t respond, leads don’t work, some people ask for exorbitant sums for even the simplest equipment. Keeping people alive on air and on hope has never been more profitable but we keep trying. And, then, it suddenly stops. The patient finds help elsewhere or gives up. Family members or friends write to tell us either way. We wait, silent participants in this bizarre man-made hell.
Welcome to the life of ordinary Indians in a pandemic. Our lives are a series of social media messages, frantic calls and desperate cries for help. Our living gasp for air and our dead await dignified goodbyes. Sometimes, the medicines we seek are not even effective. Often we buy them on the black market at exorbitant prices. Frequently, we are too late.
A complete stranger on a social media platform is our only help and solace in this time of desperation and isolation. The system that had been deteriorating over decades has finally collapsed for all of us, shattering any illusion: We are all equally desperate, equally hopeless. Our governments cannot help us, our courts can’t help us. We live in strange times — self-reliant but desolate.
The phone buzzes again. It’s someone from another city. The desperation is palpable: Someone is begging for their wife, another for a child, someone is gasping for air. We convince ourselves we ought to try. One hospital asks us to bring a confirmed test, another asks us to bring our own medicines and oxygen. It’s worse in my city, someone writes in an online group. Much worse here, another contradicts. We are a country competitive in misery and desperation.
There is a lockdown but there are crowds of people teeming outside hospitals. We keep calling our doctor friend. Finally, he answers, he has been in the ICU for 12 hours. It’s impossible, don’t bring him here. He will die. We have no beds, no oxygen, no supplies. Where then, we ask desperately. We can hear the exhaustion in his voice. He gives some leads. Anywhere but here, he says quietly.
We turn back to our phones, working our social media. The government must have something planned, my friend, the ardent supporter, tells me. The survival rate is high, says another. An act of God, someone suggests in our WhatsApp group. Let’s be positive and not play the blame game now, someone says, using three exclamation marks. My friend who lost her parent can hold it no more. It’s mass murder, she screams. They could have avoided it. They could have prepared at least for oxygen or medicines. The group goes silent.
The evening brings more distractions. The worst, believe it or not, is yet to come, says the news. The system has collapsed, announces a news anchor. Had it not collapsed decades ago? How did we run short of medicines, we are the pharmacy of the world, wonders a guest on TV. Haven’t we been running short of them for decades, asks another. The evening turns bleaker still.
What did we do to deserve this, asks someone in an online support group. We didn’t prepare. We didn’t follow scientific advice. We didn’t do physical distancing. We voted for hate, says one person, and then the group breaks into an ugly fight where nationalism is invoked and questioned. We will come through this, someone finally says. Is that a choice?
We all lie in our beds, unable to sleep. The phone buzzes again. Someone needs plasma or oxygen, or both maybe. We start posting and reposting, asking for help. The leads come alive. Silence. We hear nothing. Thanks, someone you helped writes back. Gratified, actualised and feeling relevant, we rejoice, and high on adrenaline, sleep eludes us.
Eventually, a disjointed slumber slowly lulls us into its grasp. With fitful dreams, we escape the reality that there are lines outside hospitals, gasping human beings and desperate families. Some of us awaken to a loud, insistent noise nearby. Outside, in the dead of night, sirens wail and jostle us awake to remind us that even in the darkness, not much has changed. We are in this alone.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2021 under the title ‘A day in the pandemic’. The writer is a public health expert
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