On April 26, just after I wrote a cover story for Time magazine on the devastating carnage a second wave of covid-19 is causing in India, my brother, Arif, woke me up from a nap. “Mamu is breathless,” he told me. “What do you mean?” I asked.
But many more families had also fallen ill, in the village and across the state. Many migrants had traveled to Uttar Pradesh to vote in local elections on April 15. The refusal to cancel the vote put thousands, if not millions, of people at risk, underscoring the negligence and callousness of the state. More than 700 schoolteachers who had been assigned poll duty in Uttar Pradesh succumbed to covid-19. Among them was an eight-month pregnant teacher who had begged not to be given election duty.
When I heard that Mamu was struggling to breathe, I did what many Indians have been forced to do in desperation: I relied on my class privilege, my contacts, my social media platform, my network of friends to beg for a hospital bed, one of the hottest commodities in a country where, according to conservative estimates, 3,600 people a day are dying.
Like many Indians who had been left to fend for themselves and had taken to social media to amplify their requests for oxygen, plasma, antibiotics and hospital beds, I, too, tweeted. Help arrived in the form of kind Samaritans who managed to get my uncle admitted to a private hospital; by then his oxygen was dangerously low.
My uncle was placed on oxygen support, though his scans indicated that it might have been too late. Miraculously, he bounced back the next two days. He even sent me a whispered happy birthday message on May 1 through a relative; he was also thankful for the hospital bed. But our happiness was short-lived.
At 2 a.m., as I answered birthday messages, a video call came through. I saw my uncle lying on his stomach, gasping for breath. My mom came to the phone and quickly fainted.
I am no stranger to tragedy. I’ve covered death and experienced it very closely. But nothing could have prepared me for the crippling helplessness of seeing my uncle’s desperation to live from the other side of a screen. My mother, before she fainted, begged him to try harder, for her sake, for the sake of his four children, the youngest being 12. She begged him for the sake of Allah to breathe, for their mother who had gone to bed that night expecting to see him soon.
Within minutes, my uncle suffered a stroke, his lungs and his heart gave up, and he was gone. He became another victim of India’s catastrophic coronavirus response. He died as Indian channels covered election results in five states where mass political rallies recklessly took place, adding to the second wave.
But my uncle was also lucky in many ways. He got to live a few more days and got dignity in death. Most of rural India has not been as fortunate.
Arun Sharma, a journalist reporting at great personal risk in Uttar Pradesh, sent me a video of 456 funerals in one day. Sharma tells me the scale of devastation in rural India has gone completely underreported. Reports from the ground underscore one undeniable fact: The number of covid-19 deaths in India is very likely many times higher than the official figure.
In Uttar Pradesh, political pressure is trying to keep the population in the dark. The same day I took to Twitter to request a bed or an oxygen cylinder for my uncle, Yogi Adityanath, the BJP chief minister of the state, threatened to sue hospitals if they reported oxygen shortages.
As I finished this column, I found out my 38-year-old cousin Rizwan died in his village in Uttar Pradesh, not far from where my uncle lived. Now there’s practically no Indian who hasn’t had a death in the family from covid-19. I feel numb with grief, and yet it pales when compared with the pain and suffering of families who have had to bury or cremate their loved ones in parking lots or on the streets.
I do not see any respite for either myself or the rest of the country.