India Covid Crisis. Photo: Ashmita Tamta
India descends into Covid-19 chaos, becoming the first country in the world to report more than 400,000 new cases. Photo: Ashmita Tamta

On May 7, at around 7pm, I woke up from my siesta to a series of missed calls from a dear friend, Mayank Kumar, 29. So naturally, I checked my inbox, only to see a barrage of messages in my notification panel. I just knew in my heart that it would be something grave, most likely some terrible news.

The messages were all 3-4 words long, with no complete sentences – signalling they were sent in panic. My intuition was, unfortunately, right.

“My uncle is short of breath,” read one of the countless text messages.

Mayank’s relative Rakesh Kumar, 45, who had diabetes, was so sick that he had to be admitted to a hospital and urgently needed an intensive care unit (ICU) bed.

I phoned my friend immediately to enquire about the whole situation. “I have been to five hospitals already. They are all denying admission to my uncle,” he told me. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“They are saying they do not have a spare bed. Do you know anyone in the medical fraternity personally? Have you got any connections?” Mayank said.

I could sense the fear, anguish, and desperation in his trembling voice. I could hear him trying to stifle his sobs.

Rakesh Kumar, a senior scientist at the National Test House, Delhi NCR, was gasping for survival in his car.

In his nearly two-decade career, he contributed immensely to the development of indigenous industries. He hailed from the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand and was a doting father of two teens – an elder daughter and a younger son.

It was terrifying – his oxygen saturation level dropped below 75 per cent, far below the normal 95 per cent.

Like him, many Indians had fallen sick in cities, towns, and villages. Nearly 9.1 million people thronged the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand from January 14 to April 27, and hundreds of thousands participated in election rallies in various states.

Both these mega-events emerged as super-spreaders and exacerbated the situation, with daily cases seeing a nearly 6,000 per cent increase between March 1 and April 22. The incautious decision not to call off these mass gatherings has put millions of people at risk, underlining the government’s callousness.

Upon hearing that it was becoming more and more difficult for my friend’s uncle to breathe, I had to do what many Indians would resort to in despondency. I made use of my privilege, contacts, and social media network to beg for an ICU bed.

Fortunately, we were able to admit him to a private hospital. But by then, which was at about 2am, his oxygen level had dropped even further – this time to an abnormally low 42 per cent.

Everyone panicked when he was put on a ventilator and gasped for breath. Within minutes, our worst fear came true – he drew his last breath at 4:30am and became another casualty of the country’s disastrous coronavirus response.

He, along with thousands of others, could have been saved had the government not brimmed with unbridled optimism and not declared victory too soon.

It is a paradox that the world’s largest vaccine-producing nation is struggling to inoculate its own population. India is breaking world records for daily coronavirus cases. What sickens me is that the government is trying to not only downplay the Covid-19 crisis but also underreport the number of Covid-19 deaths.

Local lockdowns have been reimplemented. The streets are again empty, filled with a deafening silence. Nowadays, anyone that I speak to has lost a family member or a friend to Covid-19 or knows somebody who has. As I concluded this piece, my father informed me that two of his deputies, both in their early forties, lost their lives to Covid-19 this morning.

It is challenging to cope with the turmoil we are in, especially when newspapers, TV channels, and social media are inundated with sorrowful scenes of people sobbing, and families scrambling for oxygen, hospital beds, medicines, and even a slot at a crematorium.

I might come across as a doomsayer, but I do not see any signs of respite from the Covid-19 pandemic in the offing. If the government does not get a grip on the crisis, our healthcare system will continue to crumble and suffocate hundreds of thousands more, like Mr Kumar, to death.