Covid: No Last Goodbyes in India

These days, as people run out of breath while scrambling for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds with ventilators to save their acutely Covid-19-infected kin and friends in panic and dread, Neha Alawadhi routinely tweets and retweets online appeals for help that attract her attention. I am always ready to help, she says. Alawadhi is in the process of seeking what she describes as “closure” for the demise of her father who died of Covid 13 days before she gave birth to a baby girl last July and months short of his 50th wedding anniversary.

Her father, a former employee at the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), died at the Covid ICU of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi last June, and Alawadhi, his youngest child, regrets that the family hardly had the time to fully mourn him for a raft of reasons. First, she was in her tense pregnancy when he expired, and she could not see his face one last time because of Covid protocols. His body, including the face, was completely wrapped in a leak-proof white body bag decontaminated with hypochlorite solution—a name tag was the sole identification mark—before being dispatched along with myriad other bodies to a designated electric crematorium for coronavirus victims at Shalimar Bagh in north Delhi. And so, nobody could take a photo of him on his deathbed.

Exigencies of Alawadhi expecting a child demanded that the rest of the family stay undemonstrative. Two months after he was gone, when a prayer event was held at her parents’ home in Sheikh Sarai, her mother instructed everyone else—her brother, who is 14 years older and a father figure to her, and close relatives—to treat the occasion as one of joy for a new birth in the family, not of the sorrow of a sudden and unfortunate loss. The mother was also admitted to AIIMS when the father was in the ICU, but could not see him even once. Regardless, the 75-year-old put on a brave face.

“Our time to mourn him has passed,” Alawadhi says with a whiff of regret. She says she often tells her family how she feels about it. What upsets her is that she and other members of the family had no idea of how his life was in the ICU. It must have been very lonely for him, she surmises. On earlier occasions, whenever he faced health problems, he had the family to fall back on for emotional support. Despite a history of medical issues, he always had a sunny disposition and was jovial, the daughter, who is a techie-turned-journalist, recalls. “His life in the ICU is a mystery to us,” she rues, emphasising that there is no dignity in a Covid death. Rabindra Nath Alawadhi, who got into a partnership business after retirement, was 78, but his death came out of the blue.

The second wave of Covid has made India one of the worst affected countries in the world in terms of daily infections, which have witnessed an exponential jump over the past few weeks. The nation, as a consequence, is hit by a wave of grief and loss, dashing earlier hopes of this year being less harsh on people after an unforgettable year of distress and chaos worldwide. The demand for oxygen has spiked this time round on account of more Covid patients suffering from shortness of breath and breathlessness than last year thanks to their exposure to new variants of the mutated virus. The health infrastructure is coming under tremendous stress—and to the brink of collapse in some states—and the contagion is expected to hobble normal life for much longer than anticipated, leaving in its wake more pain and hardship.

Although older people like Alawadhi’s father are expected to bear the brunt of this phase of the scourge as well, official data show a pronounced rise in infections among the younger lot: 5.8 per cent of those infected this time are in the age group of 0-19 as opposed to 4.2 per cent last year, while Covid cases among those aged between 20 and 39 have soared this time. Some of the variants of the virus are known to spread faster and it is suspected that existing vaccines are ineffective in fighting them. Recently, a four-day-old baby, whose mother had contracted the disease, tested positive for Covid-19, and later died at Surat in Gujarat. Reported shortage of vaccines and vaccine hesitancy are adding to the woes as people are reeling under the pandemic that has forced them into long queues even to cremate the dead.

The only thing certain amid all the uncertainty is that nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

The second wave of Covid has made India one of the worst affected countries. The nation is hit by a wave of grief and loss, dashing earlier hopes of this year being less harsh on people after an unforgettable year of distress and chaos worldwide. The demand for oxygen has spiked this time round on account of more Covid patients suffering from shortness of breath and breathlessness than last year thanks to their exposure to new variants of the mutated virus

Mumbai-based Pushpalatha Bhaskaran says she learnt it the hard way: that until it happens to a blood relative or a closest friend, one feels that Covid deaths happen only to others. This 74-year-old resident of Dombivli near Mumbai recently lost her 52-year-old healthy son to Covid. The second son, 48, based in Bengaluru, is in hospital after testing positive for the virus and is not yet out of danger. Her Navi Mumbai-based son-in-law is also in hospital infected with Covid.

Before her son passed away in early April, she had an inkling of a bad omen that her oldest son, estranged from her, was in trouble, she says. “The next morning, I called up one of his friends I always call to hear about him. And that person told me that my son was hospitalised after he developed some complications related to Covid-19. I got no further news for some more days. Then my daughter-in-law called my daughter to confirm his death. Because of Covid, I could not go and see him one last time or visit his family,” she notes. She affirms that she used to tell her daughter that she hoped the whole family would come together at her cremation. “And then this happened,” she says on the phone. Her son was an Indian Railways employee. “Now I am worried for other younger people in the family. The tension is very high and I sleep very late at night. Over the past week, I lost more than 2 kg,” says she, adding that staying alone in her home has never been more traumatic. She visits her daughter occasionally but hasn’t travelled to meet her younger son in Bengaluru in more than seven months now.

“I used to be very close to my son and family, but somehow they decided to snap ties with me over time. I have no clue what happened. There has not been much communication after my attempts to get in touch with my son some years ago failed,” she says. She lost her husband, an officer with the Indian Railways, in 1998. Life throws up its challenges, but these days it is more than what one expects to take on, Bhaskaran, a homemaker, says. She keeps herself occupied so as not to feel any loneliness and stays in touch with her friends on the phone, but the prolonged state of anxiety and the recent bereavement and fears about other relatives are damaging in an insidious way. “I have faced many tough moments in my life, but this one looks like the toughest yet. This is like slow poisoning,” she laments. Relatives and even patients are invariably worried not only about themselves but also about the next of kin and friends who may also have contracted the viral disease and are battling for life.

Pushpalatha Bhaskaran says she learnt it the hard way: that until it happens to a blood relative or a friend, one feels that Covid deaths happen only to others. This 74-year-old resident of Dombivli recently lost her 52-year-old healthy son to Covid. The second son, 48, based in Bengaluru, is in hospital after
testing positive and is not yet out of danger. Her Navi Mumbai-based son-in-law is also in hospital with Covid

Mental fatigue and burnout that accompany the loss of near and dear ones are compounded by estrangement as well as distance.

For Vikram Chopra, it is his inability to leave Mauritius to meet his dying mother in Gurugram that he expects to haunt him forever.

His mother Anu had a cold in September 2020 and later tested positive along with her husband for Covid. While the latter got well, the 70-year-old homemaker began to complain of shortness of breath and had to be admitted to a multi-specialty hospital. As is the case with Covid patients, family and friends could not pay her a visit. In such isolation, things began to get worse for Chopra’s mother: she suffered brain damage, doctors told the family. Finally, she went on to stay confined to the ICU for a month before she passed away. “I was bitterly disappointed that I could not be there,” says Chopra who cannot leave the island nation due to a decades-long, ongoing legal dispute with an influential India-born business family whose pater familias is now in trouble and whose bank accounts have been frozen and companies blacklisted in the UAE. Chopra, a fund manager, won the case—a dispute over a real-estate fund—a few months after his mother’s death in the Supreme Court of Mauritius. He remembers his parents coming over to meet him in Mauritius last year. “Had it not been for the support of my parents, I would not have been able to fight on,” says Chopra. What he inherited from his late mother is a die-hard optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Chopra feels. But the ache of not having been able to be there when his mother lay ill before she breathed her last, he says, is not going to go away anytime soon.

In Chennai, a well-known social activist, who says she lost 12 members of her family and close friends to Covid in a short time, seeks solace in silence. She is busy working to save the lives of Covid-infected people, and hopes to tide over the sorrow by dealing with those losses in private, and not by talking publicly about them

From across the country, just as it is the case the world over, there is no shortage of tales of heart-rending personal tragedies. For instance, in Chennai, a well-known social activist, who says she lost 12 members of her family and close friends to Covid in a short time, seeks solace in silence. She is busy working to save the lives of Covid-infected people, and hopes to tide over the sorrow by dealing with those losses in private, and not by talking publicly about them.

But the race to cope runs both ways.

Varanasi-based politician and businessman Gaurav Kapoor feels that such stories need to be told so that we do not forget the systemic flaws in our healthcare system and governance that need to be identified and corrected. As someone who gets numerous calls every day from even strangers to help with oxygen beds and Covid medicines, Kapoor is aware of the challenges ordinary folks face in availing of Covid treatment in the city.

Kapoor got to experience for himself what until then happened in the lives of others in mid-April when, within 72 hours, he lost three of his closest relatives to the disease. It is not that he hadn’t felt empathy for others earlier, but then, as always, death in the family leaves far more excruciating effects because of the memories you have with the departed, he reasons. He calls what is happening around him a “human tragedy of mammoth proportions”. His tauji Mohan Lal Kapoor (father’s older brother) died first, taiji Nirmal (wife of another brother of his father) and then badi taiji Meena (wife of Mohan Lal Kapoor) died within 72 hours of each other, the last death occurring on April 17th. It was as infernal as things could get, with sudden deaths leaving a vacuum and bringing to the fore the extremely precarious nature of life in these times, he notes. As a social worker, he is used to frequent calls these days from people asking him to help arrange for remdesivir vials and oxygen cylinders and ICU beds and he often obliges them by calling up friends.

The chain of events started with a call from his cousin who lives in Pune, the son of Mohan Lal Kapoor who is a resident of Varanasi, requesting him to check on his (the cousin’s) dad. When the young Kapoor called up his paternal uncle’s home, he had already gone to sleep after taking some medicines for high fever and other symptoms. But calls kept coming hours later, and as it happened, the uncle had to be shifted to a hospital. He managed an oxygen bed in an ESI near the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Hospital in the city, one of the oldest living urban centres in the world, which is considered the holiest of holy cities by Hindus. The next thing the 43-year-old Kapoor heard from the medical facility was that his uncle was gone. “And then it was all about getting him cremated and there were long queues there as well,” recalls Kapoor, who keeps tweeting about long queues at Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat where bodies are cremated along the edge of the Ganga.

Notwithstanding the penetrating agony and the struggle to cope with the losses—as is the case with the fury of pandemics historically—the signs of torment tend to disappear from the faces of survivors now, only to go deeper and deeper

“My uncle and aunts were all healthy and fit adults, and had hardly stepped out of their home ever since Covid-19 struck. I am still confused about how they contracted the disease because they all maintained social distancing and wore masks whenever they had to step out of their home to buy vegetables and so on,” points out Kapoor, who is deeply distraught especially by the death of the younger taiji, Nirmal, whom he had been close to. “I am deeply shaken by these losses,” says Kapoor who avers that he tells everyone who contacts him to take care.

“Be very wary, stay indoors and wear double masks when you step out,” a former colleague from Ahmedabad, who very recently lost her sister-in-law to Covid for want of an oxygen bed, warned me after accepting my condolences.

Notwithstanding the penetrating agony and the struggle to cope with the losses—as is the case with the fury of pandemics historically—death seems to have lost its sting as the signs of torment tend to disappear from the faces of survivors only to go deeper and deeper.

And just as we hoped the worst of immeasurable tragedies was over, it is as if the portents of doom have resurfaced for all to see: the worst is yet to come. A Delhi-based senior physician sums up the size of the grief he confronts every day, “I have always thought of my community being some sort of psychopaths in the sense that we treat deaths as mere deaths. But this is too much even for us. This is beyond what anyone could have ever imagined.”

First published in Open

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s