Left on their own, people seek help and comfort in each other

The wood is depleted, as is the oxygen, as India waits to cremate its dead COVID. Bodies pile up in cremation ghats and cemeteries, as frantic parents bid farewell to loved ones. When their turn finally comes, they wait and watch from a distance, crying but mostly too numb, with only a handful of family or friends in sight to console them. Smoke and dust rise, making the air momentarily dull gray and stifling their grief.

Our phones vibrate every day, our social networks are full of people asking for oxygen, medicine, ambulances and hope. We are trying to find leads, drugs, cylinders and beds. It’s a wild goose hunt. Sometimes people don’t respond, leads don’t work, some people charge exorbitant amounts for even the simplest material. Keeping people alive on air and in hope has never been more profitable, but we keep trying. And then it stops suddenly. The patient finds help elsewhere or gives up. Family members or friends write to tell us anyway. We wait, silent participants in this strange artificial hell.

Welcome to the life of ordinary Indians during a pandemic. Our lives are a series of social media posts, frantic pleas and desperate cries for help. Our breathless living and our dead await a dignified farewell. Sometimes the drugs we are looking for are not even effective. Often we buy them on the black market at exorbitant prices. Often, we are too late.

A complete stranger on a social media platform is our only help and solace in this time of desperation and isolation. The system that had deteriorated over decades finally collapsed for all of us, shattering all illusions: we are all equally desperate, equally desperate. Our governments cannot help us, our courts cannot help us. We live in strange times – self-reliant but sorry.

The phone vibrates again. It’s someone from another city. The despair is palpable: someone is begging for his wife, another for a child, someone is out of breath. We convince ourselves that we must try. One hospital asks us to bring a confirmed test, another asks us to bring our own medicine and oxygen. It’s worse in my city, writes someone in an online group. Much worse here, another contradicts. We are a competitive country in misery and despair.

There is lockdown but there are crowds of people swarming outside hospitals. We keep calling our doctor friend. Finally, he replies, he has been in intensive care for 12 hours. It’s impossible, don’t bring him here. He will die. We have no beds, no oxygen, no supplies. Where then, we desperately ask. You can hear exhaustion in his voice. He gives some leads. Anywhere except here, he said softly.

We go back to our phones, work on our social networks. The government must have something planned, my friend told me, ardently supporting it. The survival rate is high, says another. An act of God, suggests someone in our WhatsApp group. Let’s be positive and let’s not play the blame game now, someone said, using three exclamation marks. My friend who lost her parent can’t take it anymore. It’s a mass murder, she cries. They could have avoided it. They could have at least prepared for oxygen or medicine. The group becomes silent.

The evening brings more distractions. The worst, believe it or not, is yet to come, says the news. The system has collapsed, announces a news anchor. Hadn’t it collapsed decades ago? How did we run out of medicines, we are the pharmacy of the world, asks a guest on television. Have we not been lacking for decades, asks another. The evening darkens further.

What have we done to deserve this, asks someone in an online support group. We did not prepare. We did not follow scientific advice. We didn’t do physical distancing. We voted for hate, one person said, then the group engages in an ugly fight where nationalism is invoked and challenged. We’ll be fine, someone said at last. Is it a choice?

We are all lying in our beds, unable to sleep. The phone vibrates again. Someone needs plasma or oxygen, or maybe both. We start posting and reposting, asking for help. The tracks come to life. Silence. We hear nothing. Thanks, someone you have helped answer you. Satisfied, updated and feeling relevant, we rejoice, and full of adrenaline, sleep escapes us.

Finally, a disarticulated sleep slowly rocks us. With restless dreams, we escape the reality that there are queues outside hospitals, panting human beings and desperate families. Some of us wake up to a loud, insistent noise nearby. Outside, in the middle of the night, sirens howl and jostle us to remind us that even in the dark, little has changed. We are alone in this case.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2021 under the title “A Day in the Pandemic”. The writer is a public health expert

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