“Total helplessness”: the accountability crisis behind India’s Covid-19 surge

Oxygen shortages are pushing Indian hospitals to breaking point, and raising questions over the response of Narendra Modi’s government.

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“What is most stressful these days is this feeling of total helplessness," says Dr Amir Maroof Khan, 44, a professor of community medicine at Delhi’s University College of Medical Sciences. "Medical science teaches us to treat patients, but it does not really equip us to face acute non-availability of critical resources, like oxygen, ventilators, intensive care beds.”

Khan is recovering from Covid-19 at home, but his doctor wife and mother-in-law are still in hospital. He has lost five relatives and friends in the last three days alone. “There is a growing shortage of manpower in hospitals. Doctors and nurses are falling sick, catching the virus. The only time I am not worried is when I am cooking for my children.”

India has recorded over 300,000 daily cases for 13 consecutive days, as the country is gripped by a ferocious second wave of the pandemic. Today (7 May), the country reported 414,188 new cases in the last 24 hours, taking the total infection tally further past the 21-million mark.

Desperate pleas on social media for a hospital bed, oxygen cylinder, medicines, have become so common that many are terrified to look at their phones. Others spend hours trying to help. Solidarity Twitter has worked in many cases; failed in many more. The demand is many times the supply.

The locked-down capital of Delhi, a city of over 20 million, is an infection hotspot: its current daily death toll from the virus is over 400. In recent days, desperate hospital administrators have been sending SOS messages to news television channels saying they have oxygen for only the next 30 minutes and patients could die.

Several hospitals have gone to court. The Delhi High Court asked Narendra Modi’s government on Tuesday (4 May) why it has not complied with its order to supply 700 metric tonnes of oxygen daily to the capital. "You can put your head in sand like an ostrich, we will not," the judges told the central government.

Since the second half of April, national television has been broadcasting numbing images of funeral pyres. Now, it shows ambulance queues and patients hooked up to oxygen cylinders while their relatives run around trying to get refills. A former Indian diplomat died outside a hospital on the outskirts of Delhi after waiting nearly five hours for a bed. He was one of too many to count.

Mohammed Shafi Kuchay, 40, is a doctor working with Medanta, The Medicity Hospital, in Gurugram, a city just south-west of New Delhi. He and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks. What worries him most is the risk of exposure at work. “Many of those who come to consult me turn out to be Covid-positive a few days after their visit. There is a glass wall dividing me from the patient. I am fully vaccinated, always double-masked, but even so there is a little risk.” He says he has “learnt not to think about it” when he comes home.

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While the medical disaster is perhaps the most visible element of the crisis, it is by no means the only one. In locked down Delhi, many once again face extreme poverty.

When the nation first locked down in March 2020, those working in informal jobs, often without any written contacts, were the worst-hit. By October last year, there were signs of economic recovery; the trickle of people going back to work gathered momentum and one could see master masons and construction labourers at work in the city.

But labourers’ daily wages are now nosediving and migrant workers are scrambling to return to their home villages, as they did during the first wave last year. Non-profit organisations also report a rise in distress calls from children facing abuse, or those orphaned by Covid-19. 

“There is increasing child labour and sexual exploitation, including incest. There is a case where a mother was bed-ridden with severe Covid symptoms and the father sexually assaulted the daughter,” says Sonal Kapoor Singh, founder of the NGO Protsahan India Foundation.

[See also: India's nightmare shows Covid is becoming a primarily Global South pandemic]

With Delhi in such turmoil, fears are also mounting for rural India, where most of the population lives, and where the virus has begun to make inroads.

Over a crackling phone line, a young man from a remote village in Sahibganj district in Jharkhand, eastern India, talks about the rising demand for the coarse cloth used for shrouds. His family runs a cloth store. “More people are dying. It is hard to say whether it is due to Covid -19. There is hardly any testing.”

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Vital medical supplies have begun to pour into India and more oxygen is now reaching Delhi from other parts of the country and abroad. Shortages in the capital's hospitals are easing compared to a fortnight ago. But public anger is still growing.

“In our housing complex alone, there have been two Covid deaths in the last week. But I am privileged. I am alive. My family is with me. I can work from home. Most Indians don't have that luxury,” says a neighbour. She worries about her 81-year-old mother who lives alone in Kolkata.

“In one way or another, everyone is battling the virus. Everyone, it seems, except the Indian state,” writes Mihir Sharma, a Bloomberg columnist. “Once again, ordinary citizens feel as if we’ve been abandoned by our government.” Meanwhile, construction work for a $1.8bn parliamentary renovation continues in the heart of the city.

Prime Minister Modi’s personal popularity may not have taken a serious hit yet, but recent state elections show that colossal missteps in the pandemic response can have political implications. Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not win what it most coveted, the state of West Bengal, though Mr Modi had personally addressed two dozen campaign rallies there.

There are images that will be hard to erase, of gigantic religious festivals and election rallies, even as the pandemic raged on. Television brought home the sight of ministers, including the Prime Minister, crowing about the size of crowds. People were without masks, packed cheek by jowl.

One question keeps arising: where is the accountability?

Patralekha Chatterjee is a journalist, author and consultant to international development agencies. She is currently based in Delhi.

[See also: Will the BJP's defeat in West Bengal prove a turning point in Indian politics?]

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