Despair and despondency as India faces second Covid-19 wave

People refilling medical oxygen cylinders for Covid-19 patients at a refill station in Allahabad on April 20, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Since I moved into my new flat in 2018, I have paid scant attention to the facility management's app that has mostly been used to communicate with residents on perfunctory housekeeping issues. But I cannot ignore it any longer.

For the past fortnight, its daily and disconcerting alerts on Covid-19 cases in our complex in Noida, a Delhi suburb, have commanded my attention - a barometer of just how dangerously close my family and I are to the wildfire.

The complex, which houses around 1,110 families, has reported 104 cases since March 28 this year. Of these, 90 are active. The total for 2020, on the other hand, was just 64, with the last case reported on Nov 30. That I have not heard wailing ambulance sirens yet in the complex is a small mercy.

This has made our restricted life even more so. We wear double masks while we are out and we do not share lifts. Social visits, severely curtailed since last year, have again ended entirely. Grocery shopping has moved back online and our domestic help has gone on paid leave until things improve.

It has been especially hard on my 10-year-old son, who began online classes in March last year and has not seen his classmates since then. He begged us to let him go to the playground a few weeks ago for the first time in more than a year to meet a classmate. I do not know when he can go again.

The situation here is a horrific reflection of just how distressing the pandemic is in India, which reported 314,835 fresh cases on Thursday (April 22), the world's highest single-day figure for new coronavirus infections. My country also registered 2,104 deaths, its highest daily toll as well.

Keeping pace with this macabre tally is an increasing number of pages dedicated to obituaries in newspapers. "Om Shanti", a phrase used by Hindus to mourn deaths, even trended on Twitter on Thursday as Indians consoled those bereaved.

Yet, at the start of spring, the mood among many Indians was ebullient. They thought the worst was behind them. How wrong we were! It is infuriating to now look back and see how quickly people dropped their guards and led us down this slope. Friends and acquaintances went on holidays to Goa and Kashmir in March despite early signs of a second wave.

And I watched with dread from my balcony as neighbours celebrated Holi, a Hindu spring festival, on March 29, smearing coloured powder on each other. These "covidiots" were emboldened by lax Covid-19 behaviour from our political leaders and contradictory messaging from the authorities.

State governments encouraged domestic tourism, large religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela went ahead for days despite flaring cases and our Prime Minister and leaders from other political parties addressed large election rallies where physical distancing was a mirage.

Confident of having won the battle, the Bharatiya Janata Party even hailed its leadership "for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid" in a Feb 21 resolution. Just months since, it is despairing to see things come full circle and the government scramble and firefight yet again.

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As journalists, we had reported on the lockdown, a migrant exodus and overwhelmed hospitals in the first wave. This summer we are out in the field reporting on these same issues all over again, our souls still bruised from the misery we witnessed last year. Only this time, it is worse.

Staying in, however, is not an option for journalists, who must report from the ground despite the risks of this disturbing outbreak. Unfortunately, journalists in India have not been recognised as front-line workers despite calls from the Editors Guild of India and other organisations requesting the government to do so and give them priority access to vaccines.

Hindu devotees take part in a game played a day after Holi in Mathura, India, on March 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

India, which has been hailed as a vaccine-manufacturing powerhouse and praised for donating Covid-19 vaccines to other countries, continues to limit public vaccination to those older than 45. It is only beginning next month that citizens above 18 will be eligible for vaccination.

Several brave colleagues have already died reporting from the front lines of this pandemic. By the time journalists in India receive both their doses, we will be nearing the end of June.

How many more will we lose to Covid-19 until then?

The positivity rate in Delhi has gone up from less than 4 per cent at the start of April to nearly 33 per cent. This means one in three of those who are being tested is turning out positive. The flare-up has overburdened not just our hospitals but even labs. Friends I know have struggled to get themselves tested and then spend an agonising 48 hours or more to get their results.

Things are so bad it is not just families and friends of patients who are tweeting for help as they try to find a bed or an oxygen cylinder. Even hospital managements have taken to social media with desperate pleas to the authorities for medical oxygen. Meanwhile, visuals of patients breathing their last outside hospitals, their delirious loved ones attempting to revive them, fill my doomsday timeline.

A patient with breathing problems is seen inside an ambulance waiting to enter a Covid-19 hospital for treatment in Ahmedabad, India, on April 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

I also worry about the safety of my parents, aged more than 70, in Kolkata, whom I have struggled to restrain. They even went out and voted on April 17 in the city in an excruciatingly long eight-phase election in West Bengal that has seen daily cases soar from less than 200 in March to more than 10,000.

"Wear two masks," I told them. "Come back if there's a crowd or a long queue," I pleaded on the phone. There is little else one can do seated more than 1,500 km away.

How does one cope with all this sadness and despair? How do you hold back those tears? One cannot. After finishing this piece, I will don an N95 as well as a cloth mask, and top it with a face shield when I visit crematoriums to report on how overwhelmed they are.

The protective equipment will most likely stonewall a coronavirus infection. At least I hope it will! What it will not protect me from though is the despondency that has been gnawing away at us from within, more of which awaits us.

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