COVID-19 crisis in Delhi: As the capital breathes the dead, for some, time to grieve is a luxury

These days my city, Delhi, has shrunk to what I can see from my window – about half a kilometre – as it had during last year’s botched lockdown. Back then, going to the shops for essentials became a heart-wrenching ordeal for people like me, who were privileged enough to have food security and the bourgeois burden of guilt (optional). Outside the shops, I would always find one or two people who had never begged before, mumbling hesitant and almost inaudible requests for flour or rice to cook in their homes. These were daily wageworkers who had lost their livelihood and run through their tiny savings in a few days. Something as ordinary as a five-kilo bag of flour would send tears of relief rolling down their cheeks.

Last year, I thought my heart had broken. Little did I know.

The first couple of months of 2021 were like the tide receding before the tsunami hits. Middle-class Delhi kept up its positive attitude, swapping cooking tips on Facebook, taking online courses, and rediscovering what it’s like to breathe deeply when the city’s air is clean. We worked from home, adjusted to pay cuts and job losses, took “workations” in the hills, and somehow life went on. Not long after it became possible to venture out, we started grumbling that too many people had discovered Sunder Nursery, so we met up with friends in cafés instead. Employers started expecting those who still had jobs to go in to work, as if pretending everything was normal would boost revenues. Our government told us we had defeated the coronavirus, and it mattered little whether we believed it or not: we gave little thought to whether we were actually safer.

Then came the election campaign rallies and religious gatherings with no masks or social distancing. They were not in Delhi, but it was not hard to predict the fallout, and here we are. Official data indicate around 368 deaths per day in the city due to Covid, based on a seven-day average. But we all know that testing is abysmal, and that Covid-related statistics are gross undercounts. When a friend’s friend died in a Delhi hospital the other day, their body was the fortieth one at that hospital on that day, bound for cremation. The waiting time was around 12 hours because firewood was not readily available. The family of the departed man had little choice but to trust that overworked and exhausted crematorium workers were able to give their loved one a decent farewell on their behalf. To help cope with the surge of bodies awaiting last rites, makeshift crematoriums operated by volunteers in PPE have sprung up. According to one media report, some of these volunteers are Covid survivors themselves, and some return to the job the very next day after losing a family member to the virus, because there is so much to do. For some, even the time to grieve is a luxury.

According to a media report, two siblings aged 20 and 18 who lost their parents to Covid tried to take their own lives, and were saved by timely intervention by neighbours and police. Anurag Kundu, head of the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, was quoted as saying that there were many such cases, and that his organisation’s recently launched helpline was getting lots of calls from children seeking help. Who will comfort these children and secure their future?

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Covid has affected literally every person in Delhi and the National Capital Region. It has not spared even newborns. As I was writing this, a message landed in my inbox that stood out amid the unceasing torrent of requests for leads on hospital bed availability or oxygen cylinders for the critically ill: “Friends, any lead for a wet nurse in South Delhi? A young mom has left the world, leaving a two-day-old behind.” This child joins the 47 percent (more than 640 million people) of India’s population that is under 25 years old. How is the family supposed to rejoice in the birth of this little one, I wonder.

It is no consolation that things are even worse across the border, in Uttar Pradesh. To give just one example, a reporter there tweeted a horrific and enraging video of a man pleading as police allegedly hauled away an oxygen cylinder that his sick mother was using, for use by someone deemed more important. It’s no consolation that many people I know have got one or both vaccination doses, when hundreds of millions of people remain unvaccinated and vaccine supplies seem to be getting increasingly erratic. It’s no consolation that Supreme Court justice DY Chandrachud said that no state government should repress citizens who communicate their grievances on social media – shocking that it needed to be said, especially given the conspicuous absence of anything that can be called a health-care system. There is precious little amid this incalculably costly chaos that can be described using the word “system”. Or the word “care”.

The world is witnessing our great national funeral – the mass cremations in makeshift crematoria, the three-wheeled hearses. In contrast to the clean air of last year’s lockdown, Delhi is now shrouded in smoke from the pyres. Construction activity is at a halt, there is less traffic than usual on the roads, and it’s not smog season, so the fine dust that many of us have begun finding on our balconies and inside our homes must be from the cremations. Even many of us who do not have Covid are struggling to breathe – maybe it’s due to a combination of anxiety and the fear of inhaling the ashes.

A couple of afternoons ago, I entered the kitchen and found a hawk sitting at the window, peering in. It sat there for quite a while, and I wondered whether to offer it some water or a piece of chicken. But I didn’t, because it was so close to the pane that it would have flown off had I opened the window. An elderly man who used to live alone downstairs from me and feed the birds died a few days ago, and I wondered if the birds were missing him. It seems as though there is nothing in this city that is not tinged with loss.

Uma Asher is a Delhi-based writer and editor.