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Delhi: A week in which capital turned into a chamber of horrors

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Ground Report| New Delhi: Last week was hell. Last week was horrible. During last week, we were all thrown in a dark well and the unending screaming started. The ambulances wailed on deserted roads and so did humans –to seek some help for their loved ones gasping for their last breath.

The period was in making from last month. People were warning but no one cared. People wanted to play Holi, millions went to Kumbh and politicians were carrying out super spreader rallies. People were stupid but your heart breaks to see stupid people suffer too-they are their own. Despite being one year deep inside this deadly pandemic, India was somehow under the impression that it will pass unscathed from the stupid virus. However, the numbers did not lie. The cases were starting to build up around March and the rocket was bolted around April beginning. And the wave rose and rose and rose. By the 2nd week, when we were seeing visuals of filaments melting and bodies being burnt with kerosene in parts of Gujarat, Delhi, somehow, was under the impression that we would be better off. Perhaps, it was those serosurveys and fake comfort of having achieved significant levels of antibodies in the population. But the virus strikes at our most careless moments.

गांव में फैलता कोरोना: शुरुआती लापरवाही बनी मुसीबत

Scared with the wave which was slowly turning into a wall, Delhi’s authorities had announced that we’ll have night curfews and a weekend curfew. A feeling of déjà vu set in we had seen the same scenes- some migrants heading to Anand Vihar to leave for villages in UP and Bihar, long lines outside liquor stores, people stocking up essentials—things we had seen last year. How much worse it could get. But what followed was something that we would not have imagined in our strangest nightmares.  Some of us were already afraid to answer the question daily data was throwing at us. With 17,000-20,000 new Covid cases coming out every day what will happen if even a fraction go bad from home isolation to hospitalization to oxygen bed and ICUs. From where will we create so many beds. The fear was somewhat different from the fear we had last year. Last year we were worried about an unknown thing, a mysterious virus with so many different symptoms, and a lottery-like selection of bodies for worse punishment by infection. This year we knew that the virus will infect, some will get symptoms from 2-5 days. There are a set of medicines and a percentage of cases that will go bad and a time period when they are likely to go bad. We had a feeling we knew what was coming. Those memories of crying healthcare workers from Italy from last year. The daily record-breaking death counts announced on the ‘spectator index’. It was much nastier.

Covid now spreading rapidly in rural India

As fate would have it, our incompetent selfish governments and administrators had already wrapped up the jumbo Covid care facilities like a 10,000-bed hospital set up in Ashram grounds on the outskirts of Delhi, stadiums, and Commonwealth village. From Gujarat and Maharasthra, the sires of ambulances and wails of helpless mothers shifted to UP. The pyres were many and as would be expected the despotic monk minister Adityanath started putting up tin sheets to cover them.

1 in 5 people started testing positive around, it went to 1 in 4 and every 3rd in subsequent days

Whole families started testing positive. People you knew started testing positive. People which were your sources started testing positive. And the medicines, the plasma, the remdesivir wasn’t there. You started seeing pictures of families crying outside hospitals. Some took to Twitter to seek help- to find the right supplier and the floodgates were opened. It was days and days of trying to help pleading strangers. Sometimes you thought that may be your one retweet would land the tweet to a timeline where a life may be saved. Twitter was the only healthcare system for a city of 30 million people.  A few good Samaritans made it a mission to help people. A youth congress president, an MLA, a female rights activist- some organized some alone. But as some fellow citizens helped the state was absent. There was no one to stop black marketing. Ambulances could charge Rs10,000 for a few kilometers, four remedesivir vials could cost Rs1.5 lakh an oxygen cylinder maybe a lakh. For a life of a relative, people paid whatever they could even though some of the drugs did not work in the majority of cases. Marta kya na karta.

When the weeklong Delhi curfew started- the contractors in badly affected western UP towns were already leeching off the dead-bodies by raising the rates to Rs 20-25,000: 5-6 times a normal cost. We saw a 65-year journalist in Lucknow live-tweeting his death. He used the tweet to seek help. 65 Male test result not out Oxygen levels low -52. Oxygen level 31. Death. A picture of a bedsheet covered dead body with wife crying at his feet. Hand sanitizers, medicines, oxygen cylinder in the isolation room at home. Nothing helped. The tweet was now to at least provide a van for carrying the dead body as helplines were not responding.  It hit like a gong in a silent monastery. We all felt like that journalist. We all felt vulnerable. Helpless ness-pleading for life in public view.

Then it came home. The same pleas of help. Thousands maybe lakhs. Your timeline was full of people seeking some help. “Help me  save my mother.” “I am scared for my brother. He is not able to breathe Help me find a bed” Ambulance calls rose to thousands and with extra traffic gone- the two most common sounds you heard from your locked rooms were birds and ambulance sirens. The epicenter of the disease had arrived in the national capital. Everyone was dead scared.

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Some colleagues turned positive. Their families were infected. The tracer bullet was coming closer. It was also at the time when I found three of my family members were infected. All my pleas to wear masks or to get vaccine shots were unheard. I felt angry but more than that scared for my asthmatic mother.

Now the messages and tweets were about the deaths of people you’ve spoken to. The disease was sweeping the city. “What have they done to us” you wondered. During all this mess, the prime minister and BJP continued their massive rallies in 9 phase west Bengal elections. But was winning a state more important than saving your country? Why he would not focus more on the health of the country, you wondered. The political class appeared selfish. Prime Minister would attend Covid preparedness meeting in the day and boast about the rally sizes in West Bengal in the evening. The truth was naked- ugly politicians just cared about your vote, their power. Your life or your death seemed irrelevant.

The daily calls from houses and friends and colleagues showed that this virus strain was different from the last version in 2020. Very few cases of loss of smell/taste and mild symptoms. High-grade fever. More breathlessness. Glass like structures and pneumonia in the lungs. At the onset of the week, the beds were already getting full. 30-40 ICU beds remained in the entire city of 25-30 million.

The crisis entered the next level both at the personal and city level. The fever was not breaking at home, SPO2 was reaching the low 90s and the pleas of help from oxygen cylinders had moved on from individuals to hospitals. Now whole hospitals with hundreds of patients were running out of oxygen stock. Is it not surreal to see some of the best-known hospitals in the country tweeting  that they are left with oxygen stock of 3 hours, 2 hours, or 30 minutes and patients may die. Police lifting a few cylinders from one site to another to save lives, Chief Minister pleading with folded hands to get more oxygen for the state. It was not a brief one-day crisis. The same countdowns on oxygen and lives in Covid hospitals continued day after day. You were shocked that this could happen to the capital of the nation wanting to become a global power. Your self-belief in your country was shaken. “are we this bad?”

The visuals coming from hospitals were heartbreaking. A weak 5-year-old cancer-ridden Covid positive girl coughing holding the hand of her mother outside the biggest covid hospital of the city which was now full. A helpless daughter holding the forehead of her intubated father- lying to reassure her father that a bed has been found. A helpless stunned mother with the dead body of her son lying in her feet in an e-rickshaw and his hand dragging along the road making a line in the sand. You saw them and you were stuffed with emotions. You had to cry once in a while to feel lighter. The cases were now shifting to high-profile people. Former prime minister, famous singer, Padma awardees were getting infected. The shock value kept rising. If well-connected people are asking for help on Twitter then what will happen to us? The cases in the team kept emerging. A newly married colleague’s whole family of in-laws was now sick. Another colleague’s relatives were dead. You felt worried sick that this may happen to you- the fever wasn’t breaking, the oxygen level was 90-91.

Back in Delhi, the nights were even more horrific. The ambulances grew louder and people in ambulances outside hospitals kept dying as their sons and daughter pleaded. “Sir ek bar dekh lijye. Sir oxygen de dijiye” The SOS messages were even more helpless. 70-80-year-olds with oxygen levels of the 70s seeking a bed, gasping for every last breath. Sisters slapping the face of fainting brother to keep them from dying. Every day the records of daily deaths and cases were breaking. The crisis was shifting from hospitals to shamshans. The capacities were raised- Nigam Bodh was ordered to operate in night defying Hindu rituals. Meanwhile, the stupidity of the government continued, rallies continued, shahi snan of Kumbh continued. They were stopped when the horses had already bolted. People were now carrying their dying wives, sons, and mothers in their cars. The dignity and self-respect were being stripped. Journalists were dying in Delhi and all across the country.

The crisis of oxygen in the hospital continued every day with large private powerhouses like Fortis, Max, and Gangaram also pleading helplessness- some approaching court –for oxygen!! The state was absent. You were left to die or to scramble for live-saving drugs. An open market for life and death. This was the national capital. It was brought to its knees. “My wife will die. I will hold your feet. I beg you. Please admit her.” We were perhaps in the middle of the biggest crisis India had seen since 1947 and no country was initially speaking anything.

How does it feel to see doctors and hospital heads sobbing on videos saying that their patients will die and they’re running out of oxygen? It drilled a feeling that even after getting inside a hospital you may not survive. Your relatives could be asked to take you away unless they arranged an oxygen cylinder from somewhere. From where? That was up to you. Some industrial area, some factory for any price or perhaps a charity from some NGO. MLAs were infected. Women commission head could not find a bed for her nana who passed away waiting. Who were you? No one. Delhi was a big sea of fears and helplessness. It could take a few days from a sore throat to any of the scenes you had internalized. The family wasn’t getting better, your employer was cutting salary-3rd time in a pandemic year, your friends were helpless and you sat inside a room waiting for your turn for disease to get you. You were being asked if you did not care enough not to go back to your hometown to help your family. You were worried that if papa too gets infected what will you do? Critical during working hours of night made it unbearable.

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Getting outside the house, to climb down from the fifth floor to buy dairy and vegetables was like going through clouds of air that were poisoned. Every third person is positive. Cloth masks were useless. Double masking and N-95 masks were the bare minimum you could do. Rest was luck. You could get it from the cook. You could get it from your roommate who visited his office daily for NDTV production.

Horrific images were coming from far-flung areas too. A dead body lying in a temple- mother and wife sitting numb beside it during the night in Chakeri. An old man unable to carry the dead body of a relative on a bicycle- sitting resigned to the pavement. Two sons carrying the dead body of their mother wedged between them on bicycles for hundreds of kilometers. The oxygen crisis in Delhi continued. Hospitals kept sending SOS messages.  20 odd patients passed away in Rohini’s top private hospital due to a shortage of oxygen. Everything we feared was possible. There was no state to save us.

Around Thursday, the visual evidence of this collective evidence was clearly visible to the world. The wall between the parking lot along Seemapuri crematorium was broken and the ground was added to shamshan. Drone shots of hundreds of pyres lined up burning stirred even the naysayers who were not accepting the scale of the calamity. The amount of hurt and grief people of north India were going through was immeasurable. A social media platform should not be a life-saving device.  Most of India was not on Twitter. Did they have no voice? You shuddered to even think about them.

It wasn’t covid. The sheer absence of the state in ensuring any order in getting beds, medicine, oxygen the apathy was scary. The shrillest cry for help– gets more retweets and the life of their loved one saved– a horror chamber. People who followed Indian handles were also stunned to see what they saw. No country had yet said anything but there were murmurs from the diaspora as their relatives fell. Human life had no cost in Delhi.

Rows and rows of cremation pyres burnt. The state was more interested in suppressing the data rather than saving lives. Two out of three were better. Mother still had breathlessness by Friday. Better but not there yet. Unfortunately for Delhi, nothing was getting better. The list of funeral points kept getting longer. The capacities kept rising. People in some localities like Dakhsinpuri resisted the cremation of Covid victims in their area. Stick and road welding crowd made sure the 10 bodies went back. No dignity even after death. The ashes lockers (asthi grah) were overflowing as whole families were infected and no one could carry out immersion. The wood shortage started to appear by the end of the week. Parks, parking lots, Yamuna bank, and dog crematorium sites were being made to develop pyre platforms for humans. The skies near these sites wore a pale orange hue in the night as pyres burnt even in the night.

By the end of the week, we had now reached a state that beds were full and people were now dying in homes. Bodies could not be cremated as whole families were sick. I received several calls of help from people dying in homes who wanted to cremate their loved ones but couldn’t. People living with the dead body of a relative for 2-3 days. Imagine the state of my beloved Delhi. Hospitals couldn’t cater to living how could they certify Covid deaths. Funeral managers say that it is easier for families to burn the body as normal non-covid death, which is what most did to stop the endless pain.

All through this week of horror, the state was not acknowledging the reality. It ordered Twitter to delete critical tweets. UP CM ordered action, NSA, and property seizure of people creating “panic” by sending SOS messages on Twitter. A dystopian state and an indifferent universe. The mess was so disturbing that international papers were now plastering the images of mass cremations on front pages. How Modi led India into this apocalyptic plague. The help was starting to come in the first few days of 2nd week’s extended lockdown. Delhi is now a big crematorium.

The mother is now better -94 oxygen saturation, no fever. Pray my Delhi gets better too. Meanwhile, the beloved flatmate has come in touch with a positive patient while moving in an office cab and ordered to home isolate for 3-4 days to see if symptoms develop. Which way would the coin flip this time?

Written By Paras. He bears witness to tragedies and celebrations in a metropolis for a living. You can find him fleeting somewhere in between twenty moods while trying to make some sense of it all.

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