The darkest days of my life: Reporting on India’s brutal second Covid wave

Wearing a crumpled pastel T-shirt, jeans and a white face mask, a grieving young man performed the final rites at Nigambodh Ghat, one of Delhi’s biggest crematoriums. He looked lost, numb and exhausted. Accompanied by a family member, Madhur Chawla followed the priests’ directions almost robotically.

He’d lost his 49-year-old mother to Covid-19. Madhur couldn’t bring himself to immerse the ashes of his mother — while his relative obliged, the 27-year-old sat on a bench close by.

In a war, you know who you’re fighting against. But in this war, the enemy has been an invisible, deadly virus, striking at will — taking someone’s last breath with it.

What can you say to console a grieving son? I approached Madhur with the intent to offer my condolences but failed miserably. Even if I wanted to document his story, this wasn’t the time or place. Holding back my tears, I asked Madhur if I could sit next to him. We sat at two ends of the bench, in complete silence. Almost five minutes later, Madhur said, “This has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”

His father, who was being treated for Covid-19, had been discharged from hospital the day before. His twin was still in medical care, and didn’t get to say his final goodbye before their mother died of the virus.

It’s been a dark time for India. Indians have been infected at an alarming rate, and have unexpectedly lost loved ones to Covid-19. Even shutting our doors and windows hasn’t helped. People — young and old, including children who have strictly been following Covid protocols — have fallen prey to the virus.

In April, when I decided to step out to report on the second wave and its deadly impact, my parents were visiting from Kolkata, a city in eastern India and my hometown. I decided to curtail the risk of infecting them. So I packed my bags and checked into a hotel. By then the condominium I live in, home to more than 1,500 people, had reported 57 positive cases.

News of family and friends being infected had already started coming in. Colleagues had lost relatives. This time, the impact of the virus was too close to home.

I told my 5-year-old daughter Anaya that I’d have to step out for a couple of days. Little did we know I’d be living just 20 kilometers (about 12.4 miles) away from her for the next 18 days. Vaccinations for the 18- to 44-year-old age group were to commence a week later.

Delhi was gasping for breath. Complaints of oxygen shortages and subsequent deaths were peaking. My country was facing the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreak. I could sense how nervous my husband and parents were. I promised to be as safe as possible.

While my video journalist and I put on our personal protective equipment and face shields in the parking lot of the crematorium, scores of ambulances lined up with grieving families in tow. Bodies on biers, covered in white sheets and bound by rope, were pulled out and taken into the crematorium.

Hindus believe in burning the bodies of their loved ones. Logs are stacked, the body is placed on top and set on fire. Later, families collect the remains and immerse them in a holy river.

An uncomfortable silence enveloped the length and breadth of this final resting place, shattered intermittently by wails of relatives, some in PPE suits, others in masks and face shields. It was 10 a.m. on this day. Most of them had probably stayed up all night — this time grieving for a loved one.

The crematorium was divided into two sections, one for non-Covid bodies and the other for those who died from the virus. The waiting for the Covid section was much longer. A queue to get a token number stretched longer by the hour.

My dilemma as a reporter was: how do I walk up to any of these people, who feel betrayed, abandoned and are in complete grief? I didn’t — rather, I couldn’t. I had never seen anything like this in my life. Wherever I looked, there were bodies — in ambulances, on elevated platforms, even in cars.

Five funeral pyres had already been set ablaze. Within an hour, raging fires enveloped the entire enclosure.

Another young man in his late 30s was standing near a burning pyre. His uncle had died of the virus. Speaking to me, Neeraj Pal said they tried calling his phone three days back. There was no response. Worried, they called the hospital to ask after him. It was then they were told that he was no more.

“If we hadn’t called the hospital, we would have been informed much later about his death,” said Pal.

A middle-aged woman slumped into the front seat of her car. Her husband’s lifeless body, rolled up in white cloth, was sitting up on the backseat. Beating her chest, she told me her husband was gasping for breath until the very end. They rushed him to four hospitals, but none took him, she said. He died at home.

“People are not dying of the virus, they’re dying because there are no beds, no oxygen to keep them alive,” she told me.

The most unforgettable image was of children at the crematorium, some as young as four. Many had lost a parent to the virus. This overstretched crematorium would be the last memory they’d have of their loved ones.

According to the Indian government, 577 children lost their parents in a span of 55 days during the second wave.

The situation in hospitals was as morbid as crematoriums. The Covid ward of a private hospital we visited was packed, with no further admissions allowed. For hours, family members had been sitting outside, waiting for news on their loved ones.

Almost 40 minutes later, more than a dozen cars rushed in. They had patients in the backseat, breathless and in distress. Relatives rushed to the ward, requesting oxygen cylinders, but the hospital didn’t have any to spare. An old woman in a wheelchair, a frail old man gasping for breath while his son implored for a hospital bed, another waiting in an ambulance — all eventually turned away.

Helpless guards at the ward entrance kept repeating these words in Hindi: “There’s no bed, no oxygen. Try another hospital.”

A young woman was breathing in the last liter of oxygen from a cylinder, while her family pleaded with hospital authorities for more. Seeing our camera and mic, her relative walked up to me. “You’re from the media, help us,” she said. “They’ll listen to you. I just need one bed for my sister.”

I wanted to help. I ran to the ward. I spoke to a doctor. But I failed — the hospital had exceeded its capacity to accommodate patients.

Sitting in the porch was a woman in a PPE suit. Sonika Babbar had accompanied her sick father and brother to the hospital, brought there by ambulances as her father’s oxygen levels fell. “There are no beds available,” Babbar said. “Patients are lying on the floor inside the ward.”

India reported more than 350,000 cases of Covid-19 that day, April 26.

When I went on air on Becky Anderson’s show “Connect The Wor
ld” the next evening to share what I’d seen, I couldn’t hold back my tears. It wasn’t easy to set aside my emotions and speak only as a reporter. These were my fellow countrymen.

Deep down, I constantly feared for my family.

Days later, I checked in with Babbar to inquire after her father and brother. Her message is still in my inbox. It reads, “He (the father) expired on May 8.”

On April 30, news of a former colleague and news anchor succumbing to cardiac arrest while recovering from Covid-19 hit me hard. Memories of us getting ready for our shows in the make-up room and talking politics came rushing back. He is survived by his wife, two young daughters and elderly parents.

The next morning, I was scheduled to speak with CNN’s Michael Holmes on India’s staggering caseload. Ten minutes before we were set to go live from the hotel, I received a message on my phone. Another former colleague and friend, Aashiish Kumar, was no more.

Infected with Covid, Kumar’s oxygen levels had dropped. With the help of friends and colleagues, an oxygen cylinder had…

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