On April 27, the news hit home for me in the worst way. I lost my father, Speedy Dutt, to covid.
My father was a man of science. He was horrified at the lack of preparedness for what all experts warned was coming. His infection seemed mild and initially manageable at home and when his fever spiked, I promised him I’d get him back from the hospital after a few days.
Because of India’s overstretched health system, we had to use a private ambulance to rush him to the hospital. The so-called ambulance was nothing more than a repurposed old car, without a paramedic or a stretcher. It had a single oxygen cylinder in the back. The driver assured me that the oxygen cylinder was fine. It was only when we reached the hospital that we discovered that my father had not gotten enough high-flow oxygen and as a result, his oxygen levels had plummeted. He went straight into ICU, and was on a ventilator for two days. After five days, he passed away at the age of 84.
I am haunted by unrelenting sorrow and doubts about what I could have done differently.
I am also angry, filled with rage at a government whose top officials continue to lie to the Indian people about the scale of the calamity.
Meanwhile, Indians are dying on the streets. One hour from the capital, outside a gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship, in scenes straight from an apocalyptical science fiction film, an oxygen “langar” — has replaced the free food normally distributed at the shrine. Tearful, desperate people from all walks of life who have been turned away from hospitals, form scrums to access oxygen. A cylinder is strapped to their mouths for half an hour at a time, rationing out a few moments of extra life.
The official death count is 222,000, but my reporting from funeral grounds informs me the number is at least four times higher. In Delhi, the undertaker at just one site told me he cremated 30 bodies at the peak of the first wave in 2020; now he has been burning more than a 100 bodies every night.
My father was due for his second vaccine the week he got covid. My grief is compounded by horror because my government sent vaccines abroad before providing supplies for our own people. It so spectacularly underestimated the second wave that it did not even ask for sufficient doses to be produced by Indian manufacturers. For months, the government refused to give expedited approvals to foreign-made vaccines. The states worst hit by the covid second wave were denied permission to start door-to-door inoculations. Now, the vaccine shortage is expected to last through July. The prime minister’s photograph is on the vaccine certificate that those lucky enough to receive a jab get. Is he ready to take moral responsibility for the vaccine catastrophe?
My father’s last words to me were, “I am choking; give me treatment.” I am grateful to the heroic, overstretched team of health workers who attended to him at one of India’s finest hospitals.
I think of my father’s twinkly eyes and broad smile, his liberal mind and feminist soul that gave his two daughters wings to fly, bringing us up as a single dad (my mum, a journalist, died when I was in my teens). Speedy was an inventor, a mechanical maverick who built planes and trains, a tinkerer of machines who loved to sometimes break them just so that he could reassemble them back again.
The day I cremated him, I too tested positive. I cannot think of how he would have repaired our broken nation.
Between my grief, and rage and loss, I remember what my father used to say often: “what cannot be cured, must be endured.”
Other Indians and I feel completely abandoned by our government. I wonder how much more we are meant to unjustly endure.