Overflowing crematoriums, unsaid goodbyes … the pandemic death story

The year 2020, which was both forgettable and unforgettable for the entire human race, is finally drawing to an end. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t affected by the tiny virus that brought the world down to its knees. While the economic, financial, and emotional suffering was immense, death, unfortunately, topped all the sufferings, as world over, the numbers kept mounting by the day. Overflowing crematoriums, mass burials, heart-wrenching scenes from hospitals, and stories about unsaid goodbyes broke everyone’s heart. As this year comes to an end, we revisit some of these stories as never before have we, collectively, stared at death so closely

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In a few hours, the world will ring in the new year in a hope that the coming year would ease some of the pain and emotional bruises that 2020 … the pandemic year … inflicted upon us. As this story is being published, a staggering 1.79 million people have succumbed to coronavirus across the world (India 148k) and a new strain, 56% more contagious than the previous one, is rearing its ugly head constantly reminding us that it’s still not curtains down to the pandemic drama even though the year is ending.

As countries continue to count their dead, we spoke to some families who lost a loved one in a pandemic year to get a sense of how they were able to process the loss and if a closure is even possible. While the virus was the primary reason why many of the deaths occurred, many people lost their lives because of manmade tragedies surrounding the pandemic and the lockdown.

As this story is being published, a staggering 1.79 million people have succumbed to coronavirus across the world. Image credit: Sunil Sachan

Deaths due to starvation, illnesses, accidents, and exhaustion   

On May 27, a video went viral on social media. A woman’s body was seen lying on one of the platforms of Muzaffarpur railway station in Bihar. Her scantily-clad child was seen playfully tugging at a sheet that was partially covering his dead mother. Another child holding a milk bottle was also seen in the video. Her belongings, stuffed in two bags, were kept away from her. The woman was later identified as Arvina Khatoon, 24. Originally from Katihar district in Bihar, Khatoon and her two small children had boarded a Shramik special train on May 25 from Ahmedabad. They reached Muzaffarpur on May 27, but Khatoon passed away on the train due to extreme heat, hunger, and dehydration as passengers were not served food or water on the train. Some people kept her body on the platform and the train moved on. Khatoon, who was stuck in Ahmedabad since the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24 and worked as a daily wager, managed to reach Bihar, but never reached home.  

Watch Arvina Khatoon’s video here. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

For a few weeks after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometers away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. While some borrowed or bought bikes or bicycles exhausting the limited savings that they had, most just set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles … but they never reached home. Fatigue killed them. On September 13, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar said the ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown, but it informed the Parliament that over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states during the lockdown. While stories of some migrants walking back home-made news because they were heart-wrenching, other migrants silently kept walking. While some made it, some, like Khatoon, didn’t. 

“I was with Arvina in the Shramik special train. Everything happened in front of my eyes,” said her brother-in-law Wazir Wajid. “With great difficulty, we could board that Shramik special train. It was extremely hot and the train was crowded. We didn’t eat anything during the entire journey and shared one bottle of water. After she collapsed, people didn’t come to help fearing corona. I got her down. Her body was lying on the platform for hours. Nobody told me what was to be done. I had to spend money from my pocket to get her body home. We are daily wage earners, but the way the government treated us was very bad,” he added.  

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to coronavirus. The data was published in July. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-covid reasons. 

Migrant workers outside a bus station in Ghaziabad on March 28. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

Take the case of Hari Prasad, 26, who was doing odd jobs in Bengaluru and also learning driving in an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). A resident of Meetapally village in Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, he had moved to Bengaluru so that he could earn more and send some cash to his parents who were struggling to meet ends. During the lockdown, he couldn’t earn a penny and was not getting enough food. His family suggested that Prasad should return home. As no transport facilities were available, he started walking to his village on April 27. The distance between Bengaluru and his village is 121 kms. Prasad kept on walking for three days, taking short breaks in between. On the morning of April 29, he reached his village, but collapsed due to exhaustion on the outskirts. The family called for an ambulance, but Prasad died on the way to the hospital. When the family returned with his body, the villagers refused to let them in as they suspected Prasad had died because of coronavirus. The family had to wait for Prasad’s corona report and his body was kept in a field in the outskirts of the village. The family could cremate the body only after they got his report which confirmed that he didn’t die due to corona. The anti-climax of the story was that after walking for 121 kms, Prasad died just a few meters away from his home.      

Rajamma Prasad, Prasad’s mother, said her son went to Bengaluru to earn money, but never came back. She is upset that the family did not get any help from the government.  

On April 16, a video of Parvez Ansari, 23, who used to work as a labourer in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, went viral. An extremely weak Ansari, his voice barely audible, was seen pleading in the video that he wanted to go back to his home in Ranchi, Jharkhand as he was extremely unwell. After the video went viral, people requested the Jharkhand and Ahmedabad police to step in. On April 19, the Ahmedabad police admitted Ansari to a hospital in Ahmedabad. His medical reports revealed that both his kidneys had malfunctioned and he also has TB. Ansari had started taking treatment for TB just before the lockdown, but could not buy medicines because of the lockdown. He wasn’t even getting food to eat. Ansari died on April 27 … alone …away from home. Because of the lockdown, his family could not attend his funeral that was arranged by the Ahmedabad police.    

Watch Parvez Ansari’s video here. Source: Swati Subhedar/Twitter

It’s been eight months since Ansari died, but his brother Tauhid Ansari, 25, is still angry. “Had the government made some arrangements for those who were stuck in other cities during the lockdown, my brother could have survived. He was very unwell, but could not come back. The situation was such that we could not reach him. I still can’t believe that he is no more. His death was very unfortunate,” he said.   

Administrative failures and unsaid goodbyes  

Vinita Yadav, 26, who worked as a police constable, gave birth to her son at the Lady Loyal Hospital in Agra on May 2. Her Covid sample was taken during her delivery. Yadav and her husband Ravi Yadav returned home on May 4 along with the newborn. On May 6, her condition started deteriorating and she couldn’t breathe. “I took her to various hospitals but all of them refused to admit her. Finally, I reached SN Medical College in Agra. My wife died even before I could complete the formalities. After 20 minutes, I received a call from the Chief Medical Officer’s Office (CMO) who informed me that my wife was corona-positive. It’s sad that all the hospitals I took her to refused to admit her and she didn’t get a bed in time. She would have been alive today,” said Yadav. Her body was lying in the hospital for hours because the staff failed to guide the family about what was to be done next. Yadav could not even touch her one last time and bid her goodbye.    

Vinita Yadav with her family. Image credit: Ranvijay Singh

In the initial days, when the cases suddenly spiked, healthcare facilities crumbled. Patients and their families were seen hospital-hopping just to get their loved ones admitted. While overworked and fatigued healthcare workers struggled in the absence of enough PPE kits and guidance, patients suffered because there were not enough Covid facilities, beds or ventilators. Many deaths occurred because of such administrative failures and there were many, like Tarun Singh, who could not even bid adieu to their loved ones.     

In July, Ankit Singh, 26, a resident of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, tested positive for coronavirus. The family called for an ambulance at 7 PM, but it arrived only at 11 PM. Many hospitals refused to admit him. Finally, at 4 AM, he was admitted to Lucknow’s TCM hospital. “My brother called me at 5:30 AM saying there was no one to look after him and he was feeling breathless. That was the last time I spoke to my brother,” said Singh’s younger brother Tarun Singh. Without the family’s consent, Singh was discharged from TCM and taken to King George’s Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow which had a dedicated Covid facility. But he passed away before he could reach KGMU. Singh’s body kept lying in the ambulance for hours as the family could not get in touch with authorities who could guide them as to what was to be done about the funeral. They couldn’t even touch him one last time.  

Thirty-two-year-old Rajkumar Sharma’s father Deshraj Sharma (61) suddenly took ill on June 24. The family took him to the Metro Hospital in Noida where they tested him for corona. On June 26, the family was informed that he was corona-positive. Many hospitals refused to admit him. Finally, Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida agreed to admit him only after the family pleaded with the authorities. At midnight, Sharma received a call from his father who informed him that he was thirsty and no one was looking after him. The call got disconnected. That was the last conversation they had. For the next two days, the son kept trying the hospital, but no one was forthcoming with any information. On July 2, a hospital staff called him and asked him to collect his father’s body. “I wonder sometimes if somebody gave my father water before he died. We don’t even know the exact date, time, and reason of his death,” said Sharma.   

“We were exhausted and the patients were just pouring in” — Dr Rupendra Kumar, 40. Image: credit: Ranvijay Singh

Overflowing crematoriums and overworked staff

“Don’t even remind me of those days. It was so hot that it was torture to wear those PPE kits. I would sweat profusely and that would leave me dehydrated. Plus, the working hours were extended. We were exhausted and the patients were just pouring in,” said Dr Rupendra Kumar, 40, who was in-charge of the corona ward at the Lokbandhu hospital in Lucknow. Talking about fatigue, Girish Vishwakarma, 48, a lab technician working at Lucknow’s civil hospital, said: “During the lockdown months, I was working for 14 hours a day, taking samples of 150-200 patients every day.” The pandemic has left our health workers completely drained. They are not the only ones. The entire chain, including nurses, ward boys, doctors, lab technicians, ambulance drivers, and those who help in cremations and burying the dead were not just physically drained, they were emotionally exhausted too.

“We used to work round the clock,” said Sunil Sachan, the Lucknow region head of 108 ambulance service. “In April and May, there were many patients in Lucknow. We had 44 108 ambulances. But they were insufficient, so the 102 ambulances were roped in too. There was a time period when we had to call for ambulances from outside Lucknow. Those were difficult days. The heat was brutal and many of us would keep fainting because those PPE kits were too stuffy. The authorities kept telling us to maintain social distancing, but things were so bad that we were actually lifting patients who had died because of corona and shifting them into ambulances. We couldn’t go home regularly. We didn’t get paid for three months, but we continued working,” he added. 

In the initial days, when the numbers of causalities started going up, crematoriums across the country were not prepared to handle so many dead bodies. Image credit: Sumit Kumar

Sharing the cremation burden

On March 22, Abdul Rehman Malbari, 51, got a call from the health officer of Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) for disposing of the body of a 67-year-old man, the first Covid fatality in Gujarat. Malbari reached the hospital and did the needful. Malbari, is the president of Ekta Trust, an NGO, which has been providing funeral service for abandoned and unclaimed bodies for the past three decades. The pandemic, however, presented novel challenges, yet, Malbari and his team, continued working throughout the lockdown without giving a second thought of getting infected with the deadly virus.

In the initial days, when the numbers of causalities started going up, crematoriums were not prepared to handle so many dead bodies. The staff at crematoriums feared contracting the virus and were hesitating to perform their duties. Emotional scenes were witnessed as family members were not allowed to go near their loved ones. As the bodies started piling up, the overworked staff at crematoriums needed a helping hand. Many Good Samaritans came forward to help them and shared the cremation burden without bothering about the faith or religion of the deceased or fearing the virus.    

Malbari has disposed of more than 70,000 unclaimed bodies in the last three decades, but the pandemic was an unusual and unprecedented situation for him and his team. In May, Surat was an epicenter of coronavirus in Gujarat. “The situation is under control now, but in April-May, we were ferrying 150 patients daily. Our job was to transport the deceased from the hospitals and homes and take them to crematoriums. There were non-covid patients too.  The government had given us PPE kits and made arrangements so that we could take bath. But still, we couldn’t go home for weeks. It was an emotionally draining phase. We were exhausted, but we were duty-bound, so we had to carry on,” said Malbari.

The last sentence spoken by Sachan is an apt climax to this pandemic death story. “Throughout the year, the government kept reminding us ‘corona ko bhagana hai, desh ko bachana hai’. None of the authorities bothered to tell us hame apne aap ko kaise bachana hai. Yet, we continued working for the sake of people. We had no choice,” he said.