As I write this, there is this strange, constant churn in the pit of my belly, doom lining my gut instead of villi. A dear friend is battling COVID-19 at this very moment, one of 3.45 million-odd active cases in India right now. Thoughts of losing the people we love have dogged our every waking moment and crept into our dreams for more than a year. However, confronting its actual possibility is another story: the rage, the helplessness, and the agony that fill me are stultifying.
I try to distract myself by reading a book—Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—but I cannot get past the first chapter. The idea of an entire book devoted to personal loss and its aftermath feels self-indulgent at this point. Individual suffering falters before the sheer scale of the carnage induced by the second wave of the virus in India: 226,720 deaths (and this is a charitable estimate) and still counting. As a country, we are dealing with collective trauma, but we haven’t managed to find the time or space to deal with it. Numbness is the overwhelming emotion right now, for all of us, punctuated, not infrequently, by violent spells of grief—as we lose, once again, someone who formed part of our pre-pandemic world.
Two months ago, things were different, very different.
What makes it harder to process, I suppose, is the rapidity with which it all went to hell. Two months ago, things were different, very different. By February this year, we were reporting markedly fewer cases and deaths. Life, although not entirely normal, was edging that way. After so many months of hermitic existence, we were ready to relaunch ourselves into the world. “Last year, in February/March, a lot of experts had said India will be the worst affected country, there will be tsunami of cases. They predicted 2 million deaths in the country. But India moved ahead with a proactive public participation,” gloated Prime Minister Narendra Modi, adding that the country had saved the world from disaster.
Despite expert warnings and proof from around the world, the Indian government chose to ignore the possibility of a second wave and the perniciousness of the new emerging variants. A series of state elections were held all across the country. The Kumbh Mela—one of the largest festivals in the world—was allowed to proceed. Vaccines made in India were shipped off to the rest of the world, leaving a scarcity at home. The result: a second wave, far worse than the one we had before, that shows no signs of slowing down. COVID-19 forecast models predict that the death toll could double in the coming weeks.
“What we are witnessing now is not criminal negligence but an outright crime against humanity,” writes Arundhati Roy in The Guardian. Her essay, which argues that the incumbent Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) is almost solely responsible for what is possibly the biggest humanitarian crisis in India after its partition, ends on a somber note. “India cannot be isolated. We need help.”
It is impossible to disagree with her. Our never robust health care system has clearly collapsed. Patients, many young and without comorbidities, are dying in hospital parking lots, unable to find a bed; oxygen, drugs, and vaccines are in very short supply; overstressed electrical systems in hospitals are bursting into flames, charring patients in their beds. Reading the newspapers in the morning often leaves me shattered, unable to function all through the day. And it doesn’t seem to end.
Our never robust health care system has clearly collapsed.
Photographs of funeral pyres have taken over our Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds that were last year—at this very same time—filled with chirpy posts about pandemic cooking, home workouts, and Zoom weddings. Like a never-ending carousel, Instagram stories churn out new requests—for oxygen, for beds, for hospitals and spaces to burn or bury our dead. A friend, who recently went through the gut-wrenching agony of trying to find oxygen for her mother, tells me that she is often up all night making calls to verify leads for oxygen or beds before sharing. “Every day, every night, there is someone you know going through this living hell,” she says.
We are fighting and fighting hard. Dedicated teams of volunteers have mushroomed across the country, offering to cook and ferry meals to COVID-19 patients in isolation, boarding pets whose owners test positive, and following up on leads. The judiciary has stepped in, pulling up various state governments and issuing directions to both the state and central government. The Indian army, recently launched Operation Co-JEET, to provide some form of relief. Also, India’s eligible age for vaccination has finally been lowered, and states have started vaccinating younger people in a limited capacity. Global support, too, has begun pouring in, and for that, we are grateful.
But we have a long way to go before things are even close to okay. Our foe, right now, is Goliathan: It is not just the virus we are battling but also an overwrought health care system, a severe shortage of resources, and most importantly, an abject failure of leadership.
We are running out of stones.
If you’d like to help India, here are some organizations that are helping on the ground:
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