Inside India’s covid crisis: oxygen shortages, scarce hospital beds and growing despair

Jasper Reid
·7-min read
Relatives and friends, wearing PPE suits, prepare a body for cremation in New Delhi today (AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives and friends, wearing PPE suits, prepare a body for cremation in New Delhi today (AFP via Getty Images)

“How are you feeling?” I asked my colleague Mukesh on our morning call. “Bad” replied Mukesh. “Last night Varun’s Mother-in-law and Shruti’s Grandfather died.”

My heart sinks. These are the first staff family deaths in our very familial company. And they didn’t die of covid, they died – like many in India today – from lack of treatment.

In New Delhi, where we live, it’s hot: 42c (and rising) as the summer sets in. This season is stifling but now it’s suffocating. Covid is everywhere; medical oxygen is in short supply; local news and tweets are suppressed by the government and countries are closing their borders to India. It’s claustrophobic, edgy and all across town, sirens are heard.

I feel lucky, alone in our apartment and away from ground-zero - the under-siege hospitals across the capital. All day Mukesh is driving to find a bed for Brijesh’s Father. Brijesh is our colleague too. Yesterday, Mukesh got two beds but there are none now and the only lead is a makeshift cot and oxygen rig twenty miles away.

This is a hard time and Mukesh is one of thousands across India searching for beds, drugs, plasma and oxygen. A grim, private-enterprise free-for-all is fuelled by information on WhatsApp or social media and every day I get dozens of tip offs and contact numbers. Some are false or defunct and mostly the precious supplies are long gone.

Lurking in this frantic exchange are black marketeers and obscene tariffs. Sellers are shady or shockingly respectable and it takes a strong stomach to deal with these fallen angels (or to spot scams). But they know what people will pay when one’s mother is dying. Price of a single dose of Remdesivir (antiviral medication used to treat covid) today: $450 (double the average monthly wage).

For patients who make it to hospital, the scenes are pathetic and broadcast around the world. ‘Pandemic porn’ say media critics but it’s hard to deny the omnishambles of India’s healthcare system. One doctor I know is telling patients it’s dangerous to present at his hospital. Do anything to get oxygen and medicine at home, just don’t come in. It’s chaos. Varun’s Mother-in-Law did just that but it wasn’t by choice.

REUTERS
REUTERS

Chaos begets fear; fear begets self-preservation which means panic buying and hoarding of supplies that lead to shortages. A spiral of panic and despair. The situation is not intrinsically different to covid waves elsewhere, but the impact and the scale is. It was ever thus in this vast and developing country.

But not since 1947 and partition have people been equally hurt from the top to the bottom of society. Today, in the world’s largest democracy, as everyone gets the vote, so all get hit by covid. Almost no one I know is unaffected by death. Money and influence – articles of faith for the privileged – offer no shelter in this storm.

One famous writer friend gets at least ten calls a day from all around India. ‘Please help sir’; ‘Can you get me a bed?’; ‘our Auntie can’t breathe’. There’s not a thing he can do and he suffers too because favours are so central to Indian society and to identity. It’s as if God was showing you what life is like, every day, for those with nothing or no status.

For the poor, and indeed those beyond the big cities (where few journalists go), it’s worse and the reported national death dates (3,000+ a day) are surely understated. Across India, families are trying to get help; many get none and so join the long queues to the crematoria and burial grounds. Funeral rites are swift and functional.

And confusion abounds. Why has this happened? Didn’t we see maskless politicians at major political rallies? What was the election commission thinking? Were the courts sleeping? Wasn’t the Kumbh Mela (the greatest gathering on earth) allowed to go ahead? Aren’t we the world’s pharmacy? Why did we send sixty million vaccine doses abroad?

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

The point is that everyone thought covid was over. We all did. Like a lot of countries.

When Wuhan happened, people here believed one of two things: either covid would spread unfettered or the innate Indian immune system - made of stern stuff - would outfox the virus. I scoffed at the latter group but by summer 2020, when India appeared to have got off lightly, one couldn’t help wondering. Popular relief bred confidence; confidence bred complacency (for example, huge cricket crowds, massive election rallies, thronged religious ceremonies) and the arrival of a much more virulent strain took its chance. And here we are.

Yes, here we are and India’s inadequate public health capacity has itself been unmasked. And god help the doctors and nurses – no clapping for them at the end of the day; on the contrary, some medical staff are getting beaten up by angry families. It’s a Lord of the Flies breakdown with every man for himself. And how much worse is man when locked down with no community or council – no bus stop to meet friends and put the world to rights. In this, India suffers like the rest of the planet, except it’s hard to think of a more innately social place and so the loss is great.

There are of course legions of people helping. Our team (we have been living in India since 2014 building a restaurant business) created a call centre to verify supply leads. Every day, my colleagues dial numbers circulating on WhatsApp but the work is now subject to a law of diminishing returns and day’s end results are dispiriting. For example, there’s oxygen in North Delhi after 8pm but no cylinders and our latest plan (if it’s legal) is to convert our soda fountain CO2 tanks into oxygen cylinders. Apparently it’s possible and bravo my comrades for such a brilliant idea.

In far away Kolkata, Future Hope, an NGO for street kids, built an isolation ward with oxygen tanks and provision for the local community. There are many such missions as the people, bit by bit, take back control. All over India, private institutions are joining the covid fightback and humanity and heroism are everywhere. The idea of street kids coming to the aid of their nation is enough to make you cry - with the greatest pride.

And for all the misery, the crisis is reaffirming India’s resilience and resourcefulness. Young techies have set up tracking apps; UK-based Non-Resident Indian doctors are offering online consultation; Twitter is buzzing with support groups and the Sikh community is providing ‘oxygen langar’ (langar being a communal food kitchen, now with O2 on the menu).

The Indian covid crisis has also become a macro-political matter as nations hurry to help and affirm their solidarity. ‘India was there for us and we shall be there for them,’ tweeted President Biden. The eyes of the world are now on India and I’ve never had so many concerned calls (many prompted by shocking, technicolour photos of Hindu funeral pyres).

REUTERS
REUTERS

But why the transnational interest? Because India matters and, like many global issues, (from covid to poverty) if you don’t fix India, you don’t fix the problem. Almost a fifth of the planet lives here and the sub-continental economy is pivotal. As they say on Wall Street, India is too big to fail.

This then is a view from the ground. If there’s a deeper meaning to the India covid crisis, we think it’s that the virus is about everybody – not only within one country but across every country. As people are starting to say, ‘no one is safe unless everyone is safe’. If 1.4 billion people get this truth across, something good may yet come.

Right now, good, like everything, is in short supply. I stay home, slipping out to feed hungry street dogs. I keep fit, swat away mosquitoes (a bad time to get dengue fever) and work hard, not least to stay distracted. But I am a lucky one. Out there the mournful sirens wail and the hustle never stops. It never does in India and, in the end, this will pull us through.

Follow Jasper Reid on Facebook and Instagram @jasper.reid.

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