As the Covid pandemic batters India, healthcare systems are collapsing and governments are proving unequal to the challenge, . In the past few weeks, Twitter has been flooded with SOS calls for oxygen, medicines and hospital beds. Many calls have been answered by volunteer and civil society groups, but quite a few have been in vain with the patient dying before help could be arranged. Away from the gaze of social media, similar stories abound, of surviving family members wondering what might have been if they acted differently, if the healthcare system wasn’t so decrepit and inadequate, if, as one grieving relative put it, oxygen was available like water as it should be.
Here are a few such stories of tragedy, of state apathy, and of questions left answered.
‘Every time I type ‘Be’ on my phone, it autofills to Bevacizumab’
For Shievani Upadhyay, 24, an investment analyst in Mumbai, her uncle made her feel heard. When she was a child, he held her hand and read her stories. When she was a teenager, he supported her in her choices. On her birthday this January, he told her that he was proud of her.
That was the last time Shievani spoke to him. He died on May 2, aged 72, at a hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where he was admitted a few days after catching the virus in Alwar. The doctors had given him one injection of Tocilizumab after the family moved heaven and earth to find it. He needed another but they couldn’t obtain it, despite trying everything, including an SOS call on Twitter.
“I reached out to everyone I knew to arrange one injection. Hundreds of sources. It was not available at all,” she said.
Shievani was in Delhi then, herself down with Covid while her parents were in Mumbai. Eventually, they found an alternative, Bevacizumab, which they could get for a high price, but the doctors said they couldn’t use it because they had already given the patients one dose of Tocilizumab.
“It was the most helpless I have ever felt in my life,” she said, through tears. “I am not a religious person, but I prayed. I prayed that something would materialise and he would get the injection as it was his only hope of survival.”
He died within a few days. Shievani to the tweet she had posted looking for the medicine and told people to stop trying. It was of no use anymore.
“Now, every time I type ‘Be’ on my phone, it autofills to Bevacizumab and I have to live through the trauma again,” said Shievani, her voice breaking. “I attended my first funeral on Zoom. How wrong does the world have to be for this to happen?”
Shievani’s uncle was the oldest person in her family and the first ever to go to college. His father died when his siblings were still young, so it fell to him to look after and educate them. He was an electrical engineer with the Railways, but Shievani remembers him more as the man who stood by her.
“Parts of me exist only because he as an individual existed in this world,” she said.
She recalls an incident from when she was in class 8. Shievani was with her extended family in Alwar and she was being taunted for not wearing Indian clothes and donning purdah, a face veil. Her uncle stood by her.
“My Tauji stepped up and said that there would be no purdah pratha in our house from that day on. He went against his own mother to make sure we had rights in our own family. That was a very big deal for me because that was the first time I felt heard.”
A day after we spoke, Shievani sent me a message with a screenshot of her phone autocorrecting a word to “Bevacizumab”. “Deleting this auto suggestion now,” she wrote, “feels like a weight lifting off.”
‘He gave me freedom, actually’
Ajay Koli asked if we could speak in English rather than Hindi when I called him. “My mother doesn’t know yet,” he said, referring to the demise of his father a week earlier.
Ram Prasad Koli, 68, a retired government servant died from Covid on April 24. Born in a Haryana village, he lived most of his life in Delhi and died there.
“She asks me about him every day, twice,” said Ajay, an assistant professor in Pune. “I just say that he is on oxygen and cannot talk. She asks why he is not video calling, I say he’s in ICU and that we cannot go inside and talk.”
Ajay’s parents lived with him in Pune and had travelled to Delhi in early March for cataract operations, and then extended the trip. On April 20, Ram Prasad was admitted to a Delhi hospital with Covid. His wife soon came down with the virus too but didn’t need hospitalisation.
“The doctor said he was recovering. He was talking and using his phone, and I thought he was doing fine,” said Ajay, whose cousin in the city was helping arrange oxygen for his father. The morning of his death, the doctor said he was using a lot of oxygen. His body needed more, but there was a shortage.
“A few minutes after 1 pm, my sister received a call from my father who told her he needed an oxygen cylinder,” said Ajay, who was getting on a flight from Pune at the time. By 1.11 pm, his cousin received a call from the doctor that Ram Prasad was no more. At 1.37 pm, the cousin called Ajay with the news.
“If the doctors had proactively said he was taking more oxygen, he should be taken to an ICU hospital or put on a ventilator, maybe there would have been a chance,” he said, adding that this wasn’t a Covid hospital and lacked necessary infrastructure. “I don’t want to think that way, but, maybe.”
After cremating his father’s body, Ajay said his priority was to keep his mother safe. Since she was recovering from Covid, he kept the news of her husband’s death. He wanted to wait until she was better. But then her oxygen level dropped, and Koli for help on Twitter. “I don’t want to lose my mom now,” he said.
He was flooded with offers and contacts for help but he couldn’t sift out authentic leads. So, the family decided to continue with home treatment for his mother. She tested negative recently and is recovering. But Ajay is yet to muster courage to give her the sad news.
Ram Prasad was a social activist and despite leaving his village, Ajay said, his father never lost touch with his roots. “He gave me freedom, actually. To all of us siblings, he gave us absolute freedom,” said Ajay. “In a Dalit family it’s not so easy. He was my best friend.”
‘Oxygen should be like water, it’s your right’
“Mama meh toh do ma hote hai,” said Mudit Singhal, 42, co-founder of a digital marketing agency in Mumbai. A maternal uncle is like having two mothers. His uncle, who died from Covid in Uttarakhand’s Roorkee on May 3, was an embodiment of this sentiment, he added.
“He was the most reassuring person I know,” said Mudit. “He was always smiling, I can’t remember him any other way. He was like a mother and a father figure at the same time. I’ll always remember him as that.”
It took some time getting him tested but Rajendra Kumar Garg, 82, eventually found a hospital bed in Roorkee. He was put on oxygen support but died six days later. Mudit if a better equipped hospital could have saved him.
“I can’t attribute it to a lack of medical facilities but I still rue that maybe I could have arranged for a better hospital. But even if I had found a better hospital, the availability of beds would still be a problem,” Mudit said. “As for oxygen, it should be like water, it’s your right. Facilities are in short supply but the demand is still high. If Delhi-NCR can be so bad, you can imagine what is happening in smaller towns. There’s a lot of grief. The way the government is behaving and people are profiteering by black marketing is insane and inhumane.”
Rajendra Kumar Garg died in Roorkee. Photo courtesy Mudit Singhal
Mudit had wanted his mama shifted to AIIMS, Rishikesh, but his cousin was unsure if he would get better treatment there. Moreover, there was no oxygen ambulance to ferry him.
“Getting an oxygen bed or an ICU bed is like an achievement. It’s like the first battle you have won when the ultimate battle hasn’t even begun,” said Mudit. “We are privileged if we get a bed, because we still have a chance to survive.”
A day before Rajendra died, Mudit’s father spoke to him on the phone. “My mammaji had sort of given up. He could barely speak but when he did, dad said it felt like he was prepared to die,” he recalled.
Almost everyone in Mudit’s family has since caught the virus. He feels numb, angry and helpless, he said. “It’s been a hellish journey. Not one day goes by when some bad news is not there.”