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Moment that mattered: India sets a record for single-day Covid cases

A medical worker in PPE attends to patients in a makeshift Covid care centre in a Delhi sports stadium, 2nd May 2021

On 22nd April, India recorded the world’s highest number of daily Covid-19 infections – 314,835 new cases in 24 hours and 2,104 deaths. The country’s healthcare system was falling apart, with severe oxygen shortages across states and people desperately pleading on social media for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and the antiviral drug remdesivir.

Six days earlier, Barkha Dutt, one of India’s most celebrated television journalists, found out that her 82-year-old father had tested positive for the virus. She had been on the road for over a year, travelling across India to report on the pandemic, which had seen a brutal second wave of infections and deaths arrive in March.

“I thought that the second wave would be easier to report on, until I was confronted with the sheer visual shock of what I was witnessing at cremation grounds, graveyards and ICUs [intensive care units],” says Dutt. “While I had seen death, devastation and tragedy in the first wave, the intensity was now much greater. It began with people being shut out of hospitals… They didn’t have enough oxygen and were not able to take patients even if they had beds. At cremation grounds there were long lines of bodies waiting to get space. The ferocity of the second wave hit me pretty swiftly.”

When her father’s situation worsened, Dutt headed back to the capital, Delhi, to confront the same uncertainty and chaos the families she had been speaking to had been facing.

The ferocity of the second wave hit me pretty swiftly”

Although experts had warned of a second wave, the Indian government had been determined to project a victorious return to normality after having ordered a strict early lockdown in March 2020. At the beginning of 2021, the numbers were on their side. The country’s daily case tally was under 20,000. Public places were opened and restrictions on large gatherings were relaxed in almost all states. Even as the cases started to climb, the messaging from the top was reinforced on 7th March 2021 by health minister Harsh Vardhan, who said, “We are in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.”

By the end of that month, however, daily cases had risen to over 68,000, Twitter was being flooded with SOS calls from cities across India and volunteer groups were struggling to compile and verify leads on plasma, ICU beds and medication. Oxygen and remdesivir were being sold for 30 times their normal price on the black market, and many desperate families fell victim to scams. Volunteers at Sikh temples who used to provide free meals to the needy were now giving out oxygen to people gasping for breath, for half an hour at a time. “I had met a 21-year-old who had to sign what I consider a modern-day death warrant, which said that if his father died from an oxygen shortage, the hospital would not be liable,” says Dutt. “He had to sign that consent form in exchange for his father getting a hospital bed. In Karnataka, I met children who were orphaned after their mother had died on the floor of a hospital corridor.”

I met a 21-year-old who had to sign what I consider a modern-day death warrant”

In Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, the furnaces of crematoria melted from overuse and in Uttar Pradesh funeral rites were performed on makeshift pyres on pavements. By April, Delhi became one of the worst-hit cities in the country, with major private hospitals counting down the hours of oxygen they had left. On the streets, ambulances were stuck in traffic jams as barricades were set up by the police to stop people from breaking the city-wide lockdown.

A man in PPE attends the cremation of a relative who died of Covid in Delhi, 20th April 2021 (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

Dutt and her father got stuck in one of these jams on the way to Medanta Hospital on 21st April. “The hospital was overstretched and couldn’t provide an ambulance immediately, so I hired a private ambulance,” she says. “What showed up was an old rickety-rackety Maruti van [a discontinued minivan model]. There were no paramedics, no equipment – just the driver and one long oxygen cylinder at the back.” Dutt had her doubts but took a panic-stricken decision to leave sooner rather than later. “I’m still haunted by whether that was a mistake,” she says. An hour later the doctor on duty told Dutt that her father’s oxygen had fallen perilously low. The cylinder in the makeshift ambulance had not worked properly and this, combined with the stress of the journey, meant that her father had to be admitted to the ICU.

“I had to beg and plead for an ICU bed because there were no beds free, so my father and I just sat there in the foyer of the hospital, waiting,” Dutt recalls. Eventually the pleading worked. “They wheeled him into the ICU and that was the last time I saw him alive,” says Dutt. On the day she cremated her father, she tested positive for Covid herself. “Instead of being able to process my grief, I was dealing with sickness,” she says.

I had to beg and plead for an ICU bed because there were no beds free”

Dutt says that many mistakes were made leading up to and during the second wave. The central government waited until January 2021 to place orders for vaccines, unlike other countries that pre-ordered almost a year in advance. It had bought only 350 million single doses by March – not nearly enough for the 950 million eligible members of the population. India is the world’s largest producer of vaccines and shipped over 66 million doses overseas between January and mid-April. As the second wave devastated the country, there were widespread vaccine shortages. “I think of my father, whose second dose was scheduled in the week he was hospitalised and I keep wondering… maybe, if he had managed to get it…” says Dutt, trailing off. “But the fact is that there were not enough vaccines and the rollout had been far too slow.”

The fact is that there were not enough vaccines and the rollout had been far too slow”

In March 2021, the government had been warned about the development of a more contagious variant of the virus, which soon became known as the Delta variant. However, those warnings were ignored. Instead, the federal government allowed Hindu festival the Kumbh Mela to take place in April, with six million devotees gathering to bathe in the holy Ganges river. Throughout March and April, Modi, as well as other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition leaders, addressed unmasked audiences of tens of thousands at political rallies for state elections.

India recorded over 200,000 deaths between April and June, around half of the country’s total Covid deaths to date. Many experts argue that this is a drastic undercount, and Dutt was determined to understand the reasons for potential discrepancies. She got back on the road after recovering from the virus to investigate rumours that bodies were washing up on the shores of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, one of the worst-hit states. “After the death of my father, my reporting became focused on how India’s dead were not being counted,” she says. “I travelled along the Ganges to extremely remote riverbanks – you couldn’t reach them by car; you had to either walk or get on the back of a motorcycle because the terrain was extremely rough. [At] five or six of these banks I saw masses of bodies floating in the river, washed up on the shore, or abandoned and left in the sandbanks in the dead of night.” Most of them would not have been included in the official death toll, never getting to the hospitals that would register their passing.

Barkha Dutt rests after reporting from Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in New Delhi, 12th June 12 2020 (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the villages, people were dying at home, without ever reaching a hospital that may have counted them as a Covid death,” she says. “I also started investigating the deaths caused by oxygen shortages, because while hospitals officially admitted shortages, the discharge summaries of patients did not acknowledge that this was the cause of death.”

Dutt continued to report from the road until August, halting her travels to start work on a book about the pandemic. She says she kept reporting because “it was the only way I thought my father’s death would have any meaning. It was the only way I knew how to cope. I don’t think I fully did. Maybe it’s just a kind of running away from my own grief.”

Over the course of her reporting, Dutt found that most Indians were not necessarily angry with the government’s handling of the crisis. “It was sorrow rather than rage. A sense of resignation, of being orphaned by the state, and a guttural loneliness,” she says. “Whether that will harden into anger, I don’t know. I think Indians, as a people, seek to forget. That’s how we heal – by forgetting.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #43 of Delayed Gratification

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