Increasingly, people are dying in plain sight. On Friday, Delhi’s leading Gangaram Hospital issued an SOS that it only had enough oxygen left for two hours and that 25 patients had already lost their lives in the hospital due to oxygen shortages. Videos show people stealing oxygen cylinders for their relatives. One devastating video from the BBC shows a woman trying to help her dying brother regain consciousness. “Bajali, why don’t you wake up?” she cries. As I was writing this, the news broke that 22 critically ill patients lost their lives at a hospital in Maharashtra after a leak from the main hospital oxygen tank stopped the flow to their ventilators. Multiple hospitals in India are petitioning the High Courts to seek immediate oxygen supply. If the apocalypse had an image, it would be the hospitals of India.
Despite these inescapable horrors, much of India remains in a sort of parallel reality where COVID-19 is not a threat. Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees continue to show up each day for a dip in the Ganges as part of the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Millions of worshippers have participated in the weeks-long festival since the first day of bathing on March 11, despite clear evidence that thousands are testing positive for the virus after attending. In the space of just a few days in mid-April, more than 1,600 cases were confirmed among devotees. In March, when the second wave was already underway, state leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) published full-page ads in national newspapers telling worshippers it was “clean” and “safe” to attend. The Uttarakhand chief minister declared on March 20, “nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.” It wasn’t until mid-April that Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that participation in the pilgrimage should be kept “symbolic” to combat the pandemic. Is it any wonder that the festival has become a super-spreader event?
I’ve been reporting on COVID-19 in India since March 2020, and it’s been bad before, but what I’m witnessing in this second wave is like nothing I’ve seen.
Healthcare workers are stretched beyond all comprehension. When I visited the state-run Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation hospital on Sunday, I saw a nurse sitting on the staircase with her head in her hands. She told me she’d been struggling with nausea. The bathrooms had not been cleaned; the workers had given up because there is only one toilet for every 20 COVID-19 patients. The nurse, who did not wish to be named, said she herself was recovering from the virus. Her request for leave had been denied three times and she wished she could resign, but her family of six depends on her. “This is hell, you tell me, is this not?” she said. “They talk of worshipping the medical fraternity but they have left us to die.” [Continue reading…]