India’s Second COVID-19 Wave
In the last three weeks, as I have tried to write this essay on different days, it has continued to elude me. First, I was crumbling physically and mentally in the throes of the virus. My frail body had gone weaker than ever before. I kept underestimating it, treating it like a seasonal flu, as my parents in the hinterland, 400 kilometers away from Delhi, thought about their cases. In the absence of testing facilities and doctors, we were left to fend for ourselves from the very beginning. Food felt like rubber inside my mouth, my nose felt like a useless accessory. Later I would learn that entire families of my mother’s siblings had come down with the virus.
On Monday, April 19, at my doctor’s clinic in Delhi I had seen at least 30 other patients who, from the looks of it, were all there for COVID treatment, pacing up and down the corridors. This happy neighborhood, only ever in the news for its goddess Kali celebrations once a year, had erupted into a fury of infections. A man seemingly in his early 30s sat on a bench near the clinic, his body out of control. He kept wanting to lay down, but the lady accompanying him, possibly his older sister, was determined to keep him sitting up straight. The bench was no place to rest for an infected person. Another extremely weak boy, supported by his mother, sat inside an autorickshaw, his body about to collapse. When I had left home that morning, I was not prepared for such sights.
The turn of the season, from winter to summer, in 2021 brought India a vision of mass destruction. Clinics bursting with patients, people fainting on roads, medical shops running out of medicines of daily use, people waiting in long queues for basic help, as the government struggled to put a stop to it all. Within the first two weeks of the second wave came the announcement by the local government of a weekend curfew, followed by weeklong lockdowns in the capital city, Delhi.
After 30 minutes of pacing up and down the front porch of the empty house next door, I finally was called in for consultation. This general physician, who I had known for his joie de vivre till as recently as early March this year, wore a worried face. From behind his mask and face shield I saw his brows creased. My checkup lasted barely five minutes, but everything felt like a haze. From behind my double masks, I was coughing hard, and that’s why I might have misheard him. I thought he said, “We are clearing you of COVID,” but perhaps he said the opposite? I’ll never know.
The next few hours were a different ordeal. I stood in a queue outside the local pharmacy. They had only a few paracetamols. While I waited for about 45 minutes, I felt I would pass out in the mild mid-April sun. The weakness was already shooting up through my veins, the debilitating fatigue taking over my senses. The hole-in-the-wall pharmacy had about six men manning the counter, taking orders on the phone, packing deliveries, and constantly keeping a log of what they needed. During my wait I saw seven to eight people come and ask for just one medicine. The pharmacist kept saying no. At one point a boy came asking for a bottle of ordinary cough syrup, and the pharmacist had to refuse him even that.
This is an affluent middle-class neighborhood in a posh pocket of South Delhi, inhabited by lawyers, doctors, businessmen, academics, and journalists. Even in that weakening stupor, my insides shuddered to think of the state of not-so-privileged pockets of the city. But this was day zero, more or less. We had just come out of a weekend curfew and were looking to the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to give us further instructions.
That morning the air was palpably ominous. As I took an auto rickshaw back home, tears welled up in my eyes seeing the roads brimming with people—walking, cycling, using public transportation and in their personal vehicles—looking for help. The richer people drove around in their SUVs, looking for that last available bit of a drug. I held myself together, careful so as not to affect the driver and took a few deep breaths. This was not going to be the most memorable of all springs.
The central government had declared victory over COVID-19 in January of this year. They had opened up courts, government offices, and other public spaces. People were going to see movies, watching cricket games, planning vacations, and even not wearing masks. Social distancing had always been a dream in a country with a population like ours, but whatever little we had been able to accomplish in the last year was over. During the first wave in 2020 fewer cases were reported (the peak was a daily count of 98,000 new cases); testing back then was also an issue, but with strict lockdowns in place, the virus spread was somewhat in control.
On April 20, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi set out to address the nation after 8 p.m., we didn’t expect much. And we were not disappointed. It was yet again one of his grand speeches, where he made no relevant announcements, no promises, no assurances. He merely highlighted the importance of the youth coming together to help the state in crisis. Irrelevant as it was, by the end of those 20 minutes we all knew, now even better than before, that we were on our own. We had to fend for ourselves, find help, take precautions, and not expect anything from the state.
What happened on social media for the next few weeks was both extremely moving and nauseating. People shared posts asking for oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, medicines, hospital beds, ICU beds, etc. I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years and not once had I seen this kind of single-toned cry for help. It was moving to see that so many people—mostly strangers to one another—were coming forward to help each other, but what was enraging was that all of this was the government’s responsibility. There was no central helpline, no streamlined data resources, and, more importantly, no transparency from the center. We were left in the lurch, with no help, supervision, guidance at all. And the prime minister’s speech only furthered this sense of despondency.
That night as I shuffled in bed, coughing, trying to sleep, an incident from my childhood returned to me. Growing up at my father’s ancestral house in Kanpur, 400 kilometers away from the capital, my mother and I would often wake up to the sound of my father crying and asking for help in his sleep. He would often dream of a burglary in his house and break out into uncontrollable sobs, screaming for help.
In August 1947 my grandfather, along with his family of 10, had run away to India overnight from a small village in newly created Muslim Pakistan. On midnight August 15, 1947 the then-prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech in the Parliament as Indians like my grandfather and grandmother looked for shelter, seething with anger at the criminal apathy of the government. The speech offered them little respite from their enormous suffering.
It would take my grandfather 11 years to find his footing in a small industrial town in North India. He made his way from scratch, bestowing upon the entire family a legacy of depression, anxiety, and trauma in the wake of the partition. They never slept peacefully at night, always afraid that their land and belongings could be whisked away from them at any moment. Since childhood my father has had these recurring nightmares where he’d go cold, sobbing, screaming a muffled cry for help in his sleep.
If that was a coping mechanism, I wonder what is in the works for us after the last month. Looking at the numbers of deaths skyrocket with every passing day, the next day worse than the one before, going to sleep with the knowledge of more deaths than we had come to know in an entire lifetime, we have all come undone. When I try to remember how we passed all of 2020, it seems like child’s play at first, but when I push to find the details of a month or week I draw a blank. The mind has already started erasing the toughest of memories.
The government had turned a blind eye during the partition, which turned out to involve one of the bloodiest mass migrations in human history. My father, grandmother, and aunts never really talked about the effects of those years on them. Similarly, the government turned a blind eye now. I don’t know how my father sleeps at night now, but I don’t sleep for more than two or three hours at once. If I manage to get some sleep, I have a series of nightmares, often waking up for a drink of water and seldom going back to sleep.
Try as I might, there is no way of knowing where I might have contracted the virus. But in April 2021 it pretty much felt as if the virus was simply in the air in Delhi. After coming down with it, I kept all the windows and doors of my ground-floor flat closed. The new variant was spreading through aerosol particles and droplets. There were theories about it flowing through pipelines, moving from one house into another. Plenty of other such theses floated as more and more people kept experiencing its wrath. The government did nothing to dispel these rumors; the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, continued to beg for oxygen across his social media channels.
I stopped logging onto Twitter, deleted Instagram, and in urgent need for a distraction sat scrolling through LinkedIn. My feed there too was full of requests for oxygen, hospital beds, plasma, and the like. I was apoplectic with rage at the circumstances. This was textbook apathy.
Three weeks after my first symptom, when I started talking with friends and acquaintances on WhatsApp about the spread, there was hardly anyone who was not affected. Government data released on May 14 showed there were 343,144 new reported cases over a 24-hour period, when at least 4,000 people died. As daily reported cases continue to be above 300,000, hospitals throughout the country remain overwhelmed.
There was an idea floating around that if this time around you got mild symptoms and did not have to be hospitalized, you were lucky. I thought about my beloved uncle who passed away in a gruesome road accident in 2012, and another uncle who was shot to death in 2017. Both these deaths at the time had seemed inhumane, mired in trauma. But now, somehow, they felt good. At least they did not have to go through this, I told myself.
This second wave of the virus was predicted, even though its virulence took virologists by surprise. The virus was fast mutating, affecting even those who had been vaccinated once, even twice. Without a COVID-specific public health infrastructure, the population crumbled. Hospital beds were unavailable, doctors and medical staff were constantly at their breaking point, journalists were dying in droves. People were dying in hospital corridors, outside hospitals waiting to be admitted, on public transit, in car parks, and unattended in their sleep at home. Delhi’s various crematoriums had run out of firewood. The forest department gave special permission for the felling of city trees to make arrangements.
The parking lots of crematoriums and neighborhood parks were turned into cremation grounds. Some infected people who were unaware of how to take care of themselves gave in to suicide. There was a second round of mass reverse migration of informal workers, who carried the virus with them from the cities to rural North India.
Soon, due to lack of space and wood, families of the dead were unable to perform religious burial rituals. Districts nestled on the banks of the Ganges in the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar saw the riverbed turning into a massive graveyard. Along with PPE kits and body bags, hundreds of dead bodies were found buried, dumped in these shallow graves. In the hinterland hundreds of such shallow graves were seen. On May 15 it was reported that at least 800 bodies were found on the banks of the river Ganga in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. While police personnel were deployed across districts to curb people from floating these unidentified bodies in the rivers, locals in these small North Indian towns and their neighboring areas said that the villages were ravaged by corona deaths and people were freely immersing corpses. Videos of mass cremations in the forests of the hilly state of Uttaranchal soon surfaced.
All through this the government kept mum.
Ajay Mohan Bisht, the saffron-clad chief minister of the largest northern state, Uttar Pradesh, where I come from, and who popularly goes by the name of Yogi Adityanath, declared amid all this that here was no shortage of oxygen in any hospital in his state. He put out a notification stating that anyone asking for help on social media or spreading rumors will be arrested without bail under the National Security Act and will also have their property seized.
No matter how many reams of text are filled with details as morbid as these, all of it will be abysmally insufficient to convey the vast extent and intensity of the trauma inflicted on people.
As widespread as the damage seems to be at the moment, there is still one way to cure it all—vaccination. But that too isn’t probable. Due to grandstanding, and in a bid to make himself look bigger and better in the eyes of the world, the prime minister had been readily supplying vaccines to poor countries at the beginning of the year. In the absence of the second wave, vaccination of the 18–59 age group of the population was planned to start only in the second half of the year. When vaccination slots opened up for people over the age of 60, there was no public campaign. Due to lack of proper communication, most of them ended up not taking the vaccine. There were no measures taken to quell vaccination hesitancy then and there still are none in place now. In my mother’s ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh, her relatives say that they will not take the vaccine because they are scared for their lives.
Once things calm down, in the absence of clear data the government will manipulate the entire situation to its benefit. But will that bring the dead back? Will it return the sole earning members so many families have lost? What about the COVID orphans who lost both their parents? What about the generations-long trauma all this will leave on the minds of the people? Where do we look for comfort? What about vaccines? Will we ever have clear numbers? How many died of COVID-19? How many died of the government’s apathy? How many were infected? How many recovered?
In April, the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of which Modi and several of his ministers are part, warned that “anti-India forces” would use the crisis to fuel “negativity” and “mistrust”. The spokesperson went on to ask the media to help foster a “positive atmosphere.”
After the April surge, in mid-May, as India ventures on with a “cautious optimism,” the daily count of new cases has dropped in the last week. Several factors indicate that the peak is approaching, but the end of the second wave is expected to be a slow process. On May 6, after reaching a high of 4.14 lakh, the daily count of cases dropped significantly. While this isn’t the first time that this is happening, the peak for India’s second wave might be close in sight. After crossing the four-lakh mark for the first time on April 30, the case count had gone down for a few days, before jumping again. The difference this time is that the seven-day average of the case count, which adjusts for daily fluctuations, has begun to show gradual decline for the first time during the second wave. The seven-day average peaked at 3.91 lakh on May 8 and has begun to decline after that. Overall current trends indicate that active cases could peak well under the 40-lakh mark for the country. As of May 6, there were 37.1 lakh active cases in India.
Delhi seems to have reached a peak and appears to be in a declining phase. The city-state had been reporting cases in the high 20,000s for some time, but has now dropped to less than 12,000 a day. Though trusting these numbers is a hard pill to swallow, we really have no other way to look for hope. As the country waits for vaccination drives to reach rural and urban pockets, there is nothing that keeps us afloat from one day to the next.
The second wave also saw a tenfold rise in the daily count of deaths in the last 45 days. Now as the case count stabilizes, a further rise in the number of deaths is slowing down. Since it is a lagging indicator, there is still a possibility that the deaths could still go on rising for a few days before coming down. As of now, about 4,000 deaths are being reported every day, which in itself a staggering number.
Last week, the government came up with a plan. On paper, two billion shots are enough to inoculate the entire adult population by December this year. But realistically, this would depend on various factors. Apart from massive ramping up of vaccine manufacturing, quelling the hesitancy among the remaining population will prove to be a gargantuan task. Most importantly, availability of efficacy and safety data of vaccine candidates will prove to be most critical.
Lacking a sense of urgency, the first two phases of vaccination had proceeded slowly, but now that cannot be the case. It is shameful as it is that India is the world’s leading manufacturer of vaccines for a wide range of diseases and has been able to fully immunize just roughly two percent of its population against COVID-19. The role played by B.1.617, the Indian COVID-19 variant, in India’s current crisis remains uncertain. According to experts, such variants are only going to increase with time. That the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines by volume is unable to meet its own needs, let alone anyone else’s, is appalling.
Apart from all this there is the toll on mental health. These months of trauma, unending death, unattended grief and crippling anxiety will leave a long-lasting imprint on the psyche of this generation. Job losses, salary cuts, losing parents, losing loved ones, losing immediate family will have cascading effects on various aspects of people’s lives. It’s something that we will be staring at for a long, long time to come. Will the government care, though?
The last 45 days have altered the way we live now. A steely silence permeates my WhatsApp chats, making me anxious. As much as I want to chat with people, friends, acquaintances, to know if they and their loved ones are fine, I hold myself back. I’m not ready for the onslaught of news of more deaths. Not physically, not mentally. Every conversation I have managed to have in the last two weeks I have lost hours of sleep thinking about our vexed population.
I now go on Twitter more often because the chatter there somehow feels better than the booming silence of my own rented flat. The outpouring of grief, death, consolation, illness, recovery, and death makes me feel like I’m a part of something. This, as opposed to the curdling loneliness of my flat in the ongoing silence of these days, is comforting. Even though we have been in a lockdown since March 2020, from April 15 of this year something has shifted.
My own encounter with the illness has made me confront how hard all of living is. Each move, however inconsequential, is laced with threat, poignance, and dread. The smallest of movements can be rendered so meaningful (-less) depending on the most minuscule of factors. As I scroll through my laptop, looking for one more way to numb this burning within, as I try to drink enough water, to stir Ensure into my nightly glass of milk, take a three-minute walk in the house, or even push these keys on the laptop, everything comes at a great cost.
The body is famished, and the mind is anguished. How, in this depleted state, are we supposed to carry on? On some afternoons I sit up to look for a vaccination slot for our cook, but nothing comes up. I sit up, take a few deep breaths and hold back the tears.
I tell myself this is not time to cry or even be sad. The dreadful scenarios my mind was conjuring up last year have all been left far behind in 2021. Things worse than what I had ever imagined are happening all the time, all at once. I am so angry and so sad, concomitantly. But I take hope in the way in which a friend has given me meals in these last three weeks. Even on days when I didn’t ask for it, he left the food at my doorstep as I slept into the afternoon. When I was finally able to manage meals on my own, I wanted to hug him. But I couldn’t. This is a new loneliness.
In India, every bit of living is fighting against the slush pile, holding on to the tiniest grain of hope. Even shuffling in bed, coughing at night, in the empty hours of the night, I remember to be grateful, to have patience and love for everyone. This threadbare kind of living doesn’t sit too well on most of us, but we’re all trying. We’re all in this together. But till when? How long before the rest of us snap open?