“I’m helpless” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times as a journalist — from families torn apart by the civil war in Sri Lanka, from mothers who lost their sons to the conflict in Kashmir, from migrant workers forced to walk hundreds of miles without food or water to reach home in the midst of India’s harsh pandemic lockdown. Each time, I would either offer words of empathy or probe a little more.
This time, I ran out of words when my mother said there was nothing much she could do to save her father.
When the second wave of the virus struck India in April, its ferocity ravaged tens of thousands of families, including mine. The country quickly became the global epicenter of the pandemic, setting grim records every day only to break them again.
The highest number of cases in a day — 414,188. The highest number of deaths in 24 hours — 4,529.
India has reported more than 27 million infections since the start of the pandemic, second only to the United States, and over 300,000 deaths. Experts say both figures are vast underestimates.
Hospital beds, oxygen, lifesaving medicines, blood tests and doctors were all in short supply as the country’s scanty health system ground to near-total collapse. There was no place for the living or the dead as hospitals and crematoriums ran out of space.
Spread over four cities, more than a dozen people in my family — mother, father, grandfather, two sisters, an uncle, two aunts, three nieces, a cousin, my best friend and me — contracted the virus in quick succession around mid-April. The next few weeks were a race against time.
The story of my family — overwhelmed by the virus and failed by a broken system and complacent government — mirrors that of countless others in the country.
Two days after receiving her first vaccine shot in April, my mother felt weak, which seemed like a side effect. Then she got weaker and feverish. My younger sister began to cough. Two private labs in Lucknow, my hometown in northern India, declined to do tests, citing some new government rule. One eventually agreed, but the result took three days.
By now, my mother, who had no co-morbidities, was short of breath and her oxygen level began to dip. My father was stranded in another city at a relative’s home.
I got on a plane from Delhi to Lucknow. Sickness was everywhere. Passengers on the flight were coughing. The luggage carrier at the elegant hotel I checked into was coughing. People lining up outside a small pharmacy near the hotel were coughing.
For two days, stuck inside the gray hotel room overlooking a school that hadn’t opened in over 12 months, I clung to any little sign that seemed encouraging.
I called friends to find leads for a hospital bed in case my mother deteriorated. Some said nothing was available, others advised home care given the state of hospitals. At that time, a referral letter from the city’s top medical officer was the only way to get admitted.
Lucknow is a sprawling city with a rich history. Much of it seems stuck in time even as new enclaves constantly get built. It is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, home to more people than Brazil. A recent government health index ranked it as among the worst five cities in the country. A high court reprimanded the state government, headed by a Hindu monk, calling it a “shame” that it “never planned things in advance” despite knowing the magnitude of the second wave.
I worried about my grandfather, not yet infected but isolated in the same house with other patients, being looked after by an attendant. I wondered if we should move him out. But take him where? The disease was everywhere. Then my mother would have an oxygen dip, and I would be back to worrying about that.
At every step, I was aware of my privilege and contacts that gave me a head start over millions of others in the country. Yet at each step, the virus was outpacing me.
After a week, just when my mother seemed to be on the mend, it would be my father’s turn to fall sick in Rampur, four hours from Delhi. For the first few days, his symptoms seemed mild and he did not experience oxygen fluctuations. The dip was sudden and more severe. A family doctor advised administering remdesivir until we could find a hospital bed.
By now, both were in short supply. I called people who called people who called more people. Someone managed to deliver two doses of the medicine and I rushed to Rampur to deliver it. The next day a bed materialized in Delhi after a friend implored the owner of a private hospital he knew.
That evening, I stood outside the hospital’s emergency ward as a dust storm swirled. I saw people come in cars, auto-rickshaws and ambulances desperately looking for beds. Everyone was being turned away. Later that week, in Delhi, the capital, the only ICU beds available were at a children’s hospital.
That night when I reached home, I received a call from the ICU. My father was being put on a noninvasive ventilator. He had a severe case of covid pneumonia. “Anything can happen,” the doctor said.
The relief of finding a bed was momentary. Hospitals began to report oxygen shortages — an ominous new problem.
One evening, a news flash informed me that the hospital where my father was admitted had only three hours of oxygen supply left. There was nothing I could do. No hospital had beds, and every day more hospitals were running out of oxygen. I was two steps ahead of many and yet one step behind the virus.
Surely the government would step in and fix this immediately, I thought. Instead, for more than two weeks, the central and state governments traded blame in court. Meanwhile, patients kept dying due to lack of oxygen.
But there was no time to worry about this. Covid had gotten to my grandfather. His weak body was shaking, my sister told me on the phone, crying. The hospitals they could reach said no beds were available. We did what we could — arranged a saline drip, an oxygen cylinder, a nurse to inject steroids. It was not enough. The next day he was gone.
But there was no time to grieve, either. There were logistics to take care of — find people to take away the body, figure a way to do last rites.
I’d spent several frustrating months investigating the undercounting of deaths in India. Now I could see it unfold in one of the ways firsthand. My grandfather died at home, with only a positive result from a rapid antigen test done by a private lab that ultimately never sent a report. He was never reflected in the city’s death toll. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mother to fight the bureaucracy.
That same week, I developed a high fever and convulsive cough. I was lucky I tested positive at the same time as my best friend so we could isolate together. She cooked and cleaned and oiled my hair so I could focus on remote caregiving and work.
My editors gave me the option to take time off, but as a journalist and citizen I could not sit out at such a difficult moment for the country. For many days, I struggled to report and write, both things I love dearly. My questions seemed trite, and I stumbled to find the right words to distill what was happening.
Meanwhile, the losses continued to mount. A beloved schoolteacher. A doctor who had once treated my father. A friend’s uncle. A source.
My father was discharged from the hospital after nearly a month. “Fragile as glass” is how one doctor described him. It seemed like a miracle made possible by an entire community — health-care providers and sanitation workers, the family friend who stayed at the hospital when I was positive, the doctor who called every day even as he and his family battled covid, friends who left care packets at my door, those who sent prayers.
As we nurse him back to health, we still haven’t found the time to mourn my genial, doting grandfather.
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of climbing guava trees in the sprawling grounds of his home and reading illustrated books on Greek mythology in his book-lined study. His collection of black-and-white photographs shot on a Rolleiflex camera from his college days fueled my early interest in photography.
There are days when I’m racked by guilt for not doing enough. I know the pandemic will end in the months to come. Life will resume its normal routine and rhythm. The heartache will ease. The anger at our country’s mismanagement of the crisis may abate. But for numerous families like mine, life will be marked by the empty seats at the table.