For daily wage earners and migrant labourers, it’s a sense of Déjà vu

For more than a year, our lives have revolved around Covid. A pandemic fatigue had set in. But just when people were hoping to move on, the situation exploded in our faces. The second Covid wave has hit India hard. The country is reporting on average three lakh fresh Covid infections daily and rumours of lockdown are making people anxious and restless. Yet again, migrant workers and daily wage earners are crowding local train and bus stations to return home because bitter memories of the 2020 lockdown are still fresh in their minds. We bring to you five heart-breaking stories of those who had faced harrowing experiences during the lockdown last year. They shudder to think what is in store for them and others this year

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“Please take some. It’s from a good shop,” said Anil Shastri, 38, as he offered me some sweets. This was just before Diwali in October 2020. Shastri and his family, comprising wife Rekha Devi (32) and two children Priya (13) and Mayank (7), lived in a one-room home in a lane not far from where I live in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is tucked between rows of bungalows on either side and most of the occupants are daily wage earners. As Shastri and I spoke, his wife sat on the floor to make tea and his children settled in another corner of the house to do their homework.

“It’s a sad Diwali. I have not had a regular income since the lockdown was announced in March (2020). I am not touching my savings because it’s meant for school fees and medical emergencies, but I withdrew some cash to buy new clothes for my children and this box of sweets,” he said. Shastri worked as a priest and before the lockdown, people would call him home for religious functions. He would get paid in cash and sometimes in kind. The earning was decent but cyclic. He earned well during the festivals, but otherwise, it was a daily struggle.

However, on March 24, 2020, the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced, Shastri knew it was bad news. “The government should have given people like us some time, at least a few hours, to make alternate arrangements. This is a one-room set. We would have died because of heat and suffocation. It would have been impossible for me to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 per month and the electricity bill of Rs 1,500 without any income. Managing ration would have been another headache. So, the moment I heard the news at 8 pm, I fled from Lucknow.”

Shastri and his family left for Hardoi – a district 100 km away from Lucknow – on their motorcycle, with minimum belongings. “My parents and brother’s family live in a village near Hardoi. They have a small farming land. I knew I was not going to get any work so I decided to move back home for a few months so that I could at least feed my family. I drove non-stop for hours and reached at 2 am. There were police on the highway, and I even had to pay a small bribe to cross a toll naka.” 

Shastri and his family in their one-room set in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Shastri’s landlord was kind enough to allow him to pay the rent in trenches during the lockdown. The family returned in October 2020, just before Diwali. When I met Shastri then, he was looking at options, because in the absence of a regular income, it was becoming difficult for him to live in a city like Lucknow.

When the second wave hit India in April 2021, and rumours of a lockdown began surfacing, I went to meet Shastri to ask if I could help him in any way. The family was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The neighbours told me they have moved back to their village as Shastri was not getting any work. In fact, most of the homes in the lane were locked. While some have made the big shift back to their villages, some have left temporarily fearing lockdown.

Singh’s family, comprising his parents, wife, and a year-old son, lives in Samastipur. His wife was expecting last year and gave birth to a baby boy in March 2020. Because of the lockdown, Singh could not leave Lucknow and got to see his new-born only in June.

A few blocks away, Ram Prasad Singh, 33, a vegetable vendor from Samastipur in Bihar, who has made Lucknow a home for the past few years, sat dejected next to his cart. He asked me if a lockdown was going to be announced and whether he should go back home. When asked where he was last year, Singh said: “I was stuck in a room with five others for months. There was just one fan, no income, and no fixed ration. This time, I don’t want to make the same mistake. I will never forget that long journey back home — nearly 50 of us were stuffed in a bus that had a capacity of 35. I will also always remember the pangs of hunger that we would experience during the lockdown.

“We are poor but eating two square meals a day was never a problem. It was humiliating to ask for food packets. It was even more humiliating to eat that sub-standard food. I am not willing to go through similar humiliation this year,” Singh said.

Migrant labourers and daily wage earners crowding at Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi after chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a lockdown to tackle with the rising Corona cases. Image source: Twitter

Not willing to take a chance …

As India is reporting record-breaking fresh Covid cases daily during the second wave that has hit the country in April 2021, there is panic all around. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on April 21, said that a lockdown should be seen as a last resort, daily wage earners and migrant labourers are not willing to take a chance … not this time. The bus and train stations across major cities in India are witnessing similar scenes like last year – panic-stricken people, carrying minimal belongings, wanting to catch the first bus or train to go back home.

In 2020, a few days 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 kilometres 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. Many set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles. While some reached home, some could not make it. Fatigue killed them. And then there were people like Shankar Yadav who were stuck in an alien state.

Shankat Yadav and 50 others were stuck at Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh last year for over a month

“We had to eat insect-laden, substandard food for a month”

“It was terrible. Even the most basic facilities like water and electricity were missing. There were many women and children with us. As it was close to a forest area, there were mosquitoes. We feared dying of Malaria or Jaundice and not Corona. The worst was the food. We were not even getting three meals a day. There were days when we had to wait until late afternoon to eat the first morsel of the day. At times they would send food cooked in the morning, which would go bad by the time it reached us in the noon because of the heat. On many occasions, there were insects in daal (pulses) and rice that was served to us,” said Yadav while talking about the month-long ordeal at Rajnandgaon.

Yadav, 24, who is originally from the Giridih district in Jharkhand, moved to Hyderabad in 2018. He runs a juice shop in Gachibowli corporate park in the city. Last year, when the rumours of a complete lockdown surfaced, Yadav and 50 others from various districts in Jharkhand, who lived together in an urban slum in Hyderabad, decided to return to Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the lockdown was announced when they reached Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh in a bus, and they all got stuck. They were taken to a government school, which was their home for the next 1.5 months.

He adds: “We are not rich, but we still manage to give decent food to our women and children. Yes, we were unwanted guests in Chhattisgarh then, but the least that the administration could have done was to treat us like human beings.”

Yadav and others reached their homes in Jharkhand after 1.5 months when the state government started plying buses for stuck migrant labourers. “We returned to Hyderabad in October. We had to. There was no income, but the owner was still asking for the stall rent. We had to dig into our savings to pay the rent. By the time, I went back to Hyderabad, I was penniless. I had to start afresh.”

Yadav is now panicking as the Corona cases are going up and there are again rumours of a complete lockdown. “This time I am confused. I am not sure if I should stay back here because if there is going to be a lockdown, I will have no income, but I will still have to pay the stall and home rent.

“I don’t want to start for home as I fear getting stuck like last time. You are more informed. I request you to tell me honestly if there is going to be a lockdown,” says Yadav.

Migrant labourers outside a bus station in Chhattisgarh. Image: Twitter

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now”

Like Yadav, Champa Marandi, 19, from Adivasi-dominated Surguja district in Chhattisgarh too has some terrible memories of the lockdown. Around 25 young boys and girls from different villages in Surguja had moved to Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh in October 2019 to work in a construction company as labourers. After the lockdown was announced, the work came to a standstill. Their contractor told them that the company was not in a position to pay them for long. Marandi and others didn’t have an option but to walk back home.

The distance between Srikakulam district and Sarguja is around 770 km. “Our parents were getting worried. So, we decided to start walking. We had one last conversation with our parents before we set off as we could not charge our mobiles after that. All we had were our backpacks and water bottles. While drinking water was not a problem as the villagers living in small hamlets along the highway were helpful, food was a major problem. “I think we got to eat one proper meal after two-three days. Some volunteers were distributing food packets along the highway, so sometimes we got to eat proper meals, but otherwise we survived on water and biscuit packets that were distributed by the CRPF jawans.

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now. We would keep walking all day long and exhausted, we would sleep on the National Highway,” Marandi said over the phone in her extremely frail voice.

Her village falls in a forest area, so connectivity is a problem. But Marandi was curious to know about the rising corona cases in the country and the lockdown rumours. When asked why she did not go back to Srikakulum after the lockdown, Marandi says: “The contractor never cleared our dues. We kept calling him. Ultimately, he switched his phone off. Our parents are upset. Also, they are worried. They will never send us back now. That was our only chance to go out and earn. The lockdown ruined it.”

Dev Yadav and Kedar Yadav (in black shirt)

“This was our last selfie together”

“I was close to my brother. But when we were getting his body back in an ambulance, the stench was so unbearable that, for the first time, I was not comfortable sharing space with him. We requested the authorities so many times to give us some ice, or at least a coffin box, but they just refused,” says Dev Yadav, 19, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, while talking about his brother, late Kedar Yadav, 32.

Yadav was among those unfortunate migrant labourers who passed away during the lockdown. They left for home but could not make it. On September 13, 2020, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Parliament that his ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown. Incidentally, over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states.

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 2020. 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.

Yadav died in an unfortunate road accident. A newly married Yadav had moved to Rajasthan to work as a construction labourer so that he could support his wife, parents, and younger siblings.

On May 15, 2020, in a desperate attempt to get back home, Yadav, along with other migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, who were also returning home, hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting sacks of cement. At 3 am on May 16, the truck collided with another stationary truck that was stationed outside a dhaba at a place called Mihauli in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the stationed truck had around 20 migrant labourers from Delhi. The collision was so powerful that both the vehicles overturned. At least 24 migrant workers died and 37 were seriously injured in the accident. Yadav was one of them.

“My brother had called us when he left from Rajasthan. He said he was coming in a bus and would be home by morning. At 4 am on May 16, I tried calling him, but could not reach him. I kept trying for two hours. At 6 am, we received a call from a policeman informing us about the accident and that my brother was seriously injured. We immediately hired a cab and left for Auraiya. But by 10 am, his name had started showing among those who had died,” says Yadav’s younger brother Dev.    

He adds: “We reached there at 3 pm. All the bodies were covered with cement, so it took us a while to identify him. We were provided with an ambulance to take his body back home, but the body was uncovered. We requested them to give us some ice or a coffin box as it was peak summer, but the authorities refused. I kept requesting the driver to switch the AC on, but he did not pay any heed. The stench was making us sick. Once we reached Gaya, we were asked to go to a police station to report a case of accidental death. Upon reaching there, we were told that our residence falls in some other police jurisdiction, so we were sent there. Then we were asked to go to a hospital to get his covid test done. Finally, at 10 pm, we reached the crematorium.”

Yadav’s wife has moved back to her parents’ place and the family is still coming to terms with the tragic loss. “We had clicked a selfie before he left. Little did we know that it was our last selfie together. I am still so numb with grief.” I know the situation is bad. People are again talking about a lockdown. I just hope no one has to go through what we went through last year,” said Dev.   

“In December 2020, my whole world came crashing down around me when I lost my ma to Covid”

In November 2020, Pooja Ganju Adlakha started writing this story which was meant to be about coping with the grief of losing her father, Major Virendra Ganju, in 2016 to Motor Neuron Disease. However, by the time the story could come out, she unexpectedly lost her mother to Covid. In this first-person account, she writes about how, with both her parents gone, she is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome

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I wrote this piece for my father in November 2020. The story was meant to be about how I was able to cope with the grief of losing him in October 2016, and how my mother was my biggest source of strength. But soon after I submitted the story for publishing, my whole world came crashing down around me.

I lost my mother, my precious, precious ma, to Covid-19 on December 26, 2020. It seemed unfair. I always thought my ma would be by my side forever. I don’t think I have the strength to deal with her sudden loss, that too in a pandemic year. A dagger is stuck in my heart forever.

They say an empty nest is when kids move out of parents’ home, but, with both my parents gone, I am experiencing a different kind of an empty nest. They will never be there to hold my hand and help me sail through. No one would shower me with unconditional love. I will miss the aroma of food cooked by my ma, and my pa’s infectious energy whenever I will enter my maternal home, that empty nest, from now on.

With both her parents gone, Pooja is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome

However difficult it may be for me to talk about this, I must still try for the sake of my ma who filled our lives with love and affection after pa left us. Now, looking back, I feel how difficult it must have been for her to live without him and not showing the slightest of pain to us, her three daughters. THAT for me is displaying pure strength for the sake of family.

This loss also made me realise we are never alone in grief. As painful as it is for me, it is equally heartbreaking for my sisters and much more for our children who doted on their nani. For now, we are numb. We are still coming to terms with the fact that we will not be able to hear her voice and see her every day. We are angry at God for taking her away from us. But we have to be sane for the sake of our children, like my ma was for our sake. I love you ma and you will always be alive inside me. Here goes my original story, the one I wrote for pa, before ma left me to be with him in heaven … 

I was expecting my second child when my father Major Virendra Ganju, a veteran in the Armed Forces, passed away. He had been battling Motor Neuron Disease and was completely bed-ridden in his last days. I particularly remember this moment when he asked me with hand gestures what I wanted … a girl or a boy. I said a girl. He called me closer and touched my belly and blessed me. And there I was, the very next month, on his tervi, giving birth to my daughter. There will always be this sadness that he was not able to see or hold my little girl, but I am glad that he had blessed her. To me, she is a piece of my papa.

Major Virendra Ganju battled Motor Neuron Disease for 23 long years

Papa … it’s a small little word but it signifies a valley of emotions, love, memories, and pride. My father has been, to this date, my hero, and I, being the youngest of his three daughters, was his most pampered one.

I have been finding ways to deal with the loss of my father for the past four years. As per the definition of grief, it is a response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone who has died. Well, in reality, grief is much more than a mere collection of words defining the immensely strong feeling of loss one feels when a beloved is gone forever.

People are often asked how they feel about the loss, how do they manage it, deal with it, or make themselves accustomed to the great void that gets created. Well, I am not sure if they actually ever get used to the void. They try to keep the memories alive to occasionally relive the moments that were once spent together, irrespective of the pain they bring along.

I can tell from my personal experience that things do get better with time, but, at times, you feel like rewinding the years all over again. The acceptance part was easier for me, as he had been defying Motor Neuron Disease (MND), a very complicated disease, for 23 long years. It was a miracle considering the doctors had given him just three years to live after he was diagnosed with MND. So, the additional years were a blessing, and it was in these years that we saw the real hero, the real soldier who had this immense will to live a happy life and none could fathom what he must have been going through.

Pooja with her parents

Though he was not active in the last few years, it was his real absence that hit us the most … all the talks that did not happen, the war stories I did not hear from him, the time that we could’ve spent together … they are just flashes, in retrospect. At times, I feel guilty, that I lived so close by, yet I could not spend every weekend with him. A valuable lesson learnt. We will always be busy, but let’s not forget to spend quality time with our loved ones. Do not wait for the right moment. It may never come.

I was in awe of my mother for being his pillar of strength. We did all that we could for him and have no regret that we could not find the right treatment for him. I personally did extensive research on MND, spoke on forums to realise how little progress has been made and, in India, how patients suffering from MND and their families had limited access to resources and support systems.

The last year that I had with him was the year when he was the most vulnerable. He was bedridden, could not speak, he was being fed through pipes, there were catheters and oximeters, and yet, whenever we would ask him about his health, he would always show a thumbs up. THAT was my papa.

So, to not see him running around fixing everything for us or throwing parties or to not hear him sing was a big blow and a realisation that a glorious chapter was about to end. He always called me his mighty son, and when it was time to lit the pyre, I was not allowed to see him as I was expecting my daughter. I did feel a bit of a rage, but my sisters lit it for the three of us, and I could not have been prouder.

Pooja’s mother with her kids

I feel it is these memories that make us strong and keep us going, and yet, there are moments. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I am writing this. I want to be as strong as he was. I am getting there. My mother and sisters were my pillars of strength. The year after he passed away, my mother stayed with me. I felt relieved that I could not spend time with my parents while my father was alive, but I got to spend time with my mother.

Handling the loss, being strong for the sake of your other parent, is also a way of dealing with grief. There are some other coping mechanisms that come in handy. I try to keep him alive by doing things he loved the most … like singing, watching movies, throwing parties for kids, donating and distributing things to people randomly, impulsively. He was indeed a happy-go-lucky man, who would not worry about the future, something I still need to learn.

I make sure to celebrate his birthday, my parents’ marriage anniversary, and his death anniversary. We play music, order their favourite dishes, donate food to the needy and that, in a way, has really helped me have happy memories of him. I know I am a bit like him so, sometimes, I justify it by doing these things. And, at times, I randomly talk to him. That keeps us connected.

Pooja Ganju Adlakha’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Sunil Kumar’s story here. He lost his wife just four days before the 2020 lockdown and eight months after they got married.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case, it being Pooja Ganju Adlakha and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“I had to deal with the grief of losing my wife during the 2020 lockdown. I felt very lonely”

Sunil Kumar, a social worker and an artist based in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, lost his wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, just a day before the March 22, 2020 Junta Curfew – a day-long lockdown that was announced ahead of the complete lockdown last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. While the whole country was anxious, Kumar was fighting a different battle at a hospital in Muzaffarpur caring for his wife, a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions. This inspirational story is about how he dealt with the grief of losing her

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The date was March 21. The country was gearing up for the Junta Curfew — a day-long nationwide lockdown that was scheduled for the next day to stop the spread of coronavirus in the country. Not much was known about the pandemic then and people were very anxious. However, I was more anxious than the rest of the country because I was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, looking after my wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, who was admitted there. She was suffering from Meningitis and Kidney stones and had been battling for her life at the hospital for 50 days. For a week after she was admitted on January 31, 2020 after she complained of high fever and headache, her condition was improving, but after that she was gradually slipping away with every passing day.

The doctors were never optimistic, but I was hopeful. I had waited for Sarla for years before she had agreed to marry me on July 10, 2019. Now, nearly eight months later, I was at the hospital holding her hand and full of hope as she was swinging between the states of semi-conscious and unconsciousness. I was mentally prepared that day. The pain was unbearable for her. Finally, at 9 pm, my wife left me forever. 

Sarla used puppeteering as a medium to spread awareness. Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day

The next day was her funeral and also the Junta Curfew. The situation was tricky. Apart from the immediate family members, very few people who knew my wife well and had worked with her managed to come down to Sikandarpur (in Bihar) for the funeral. My heart sank when I touched Sarla for the last time. Sarla was a social worker, a puppeteer and an artist, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country and working for the betterment of underprivileged Adivasi women and children. Many friends and acquaintances spread across the country who knew Sarla well wanted to attend her funeral, but couldn’t because of the situation. But over the next few days, I was inundated with messages on social media and WhatsApp, which helped me come to terms with the fact that she was no more.

It didn’t help that the country went into a complete lockdown on March 25, just four days after her death. There was a void inside me, my house … and there was a strange stillness outside. However, the initial few days gave me the time to think about how to deal with the grief of losing her. And I thought the best way to do that would be to celebrate her life and work.

Sarla was a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country

While she was alive, Sarla had worked non-stop every single day of her life for years and one of the reasons behind her untimely demise was the fact that she dedicated her life to make the lives of others better but never bothered about her own health. For instance, she would cook meals for hundreds of volunteers at social events but would forget to eat her meal.

Born on August 14, 1986 into a family of modest means in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, Sarla had to face many adversities while she was young … like the passing away of her elder sister when she was a child and not getting to spend time with her mother as she was mostly bedridden and away. Her father would repair flat tyres to make a living, but he was also a folk artiste. Sarla inherited many of the creative aspects from him. Participating in cultural events in school like singing, dancing and drama helped her escape from the harsh realities of her life. She also learnt the art of puppeteering, a talent that came in handy later in life when she travelled across some of the most remote and backward Adivasi regions to spread awareness using art as a medium.

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and continued her social work activities along with her husband

From 2013 until she passed away, she was associated with various organizations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand. She used the mediums of song, dance, skits and puppets to spread awareness among people living in backward Adivasi villages. She was also a part of many peace marches and cycle yatras that were organized to appeal for peace in regions that were affected due to Naxal violence. While her journey had been incredible and she did some commendable work, but she kept neglecting her health. In fact, she was so immersed in her work that though I had known her for long, I had to wait for many years before she could find time to marry me. 

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and though she was new to the city, she started working soon after we got married. In a brief period of time, she befriended many people and touched many lives. I am also a social worker and an artist, and I was thrilled that I was getting to spend a lot of time with my wife as we would often travel together for work.

All those who had met her still feel the void of her passing away. For me, personally, it would be impossible to feel that void … ever. I still feel the pain of losing my life partner just eight months after getting married … a partner whom I had very patiently waited for, for years.

She was admitted in the hospital for 50 days. Her husband did all that he could to make her feel better

I thought the best way to try to get over the grief would be to continue the work she had dedicated her life to. We took small steps. For instance, during the lockdown, we collected funds from those who were willing to contribute and helped the underprivileged with food and ration. With the help of journalists and NGOs, we worked on a project that helped those who had lost their jobs during the lockdown to find some form of employment. We distributed food packets and used art as a medium to stop people from falling into the trap of depression and anxiety.  

On Sarla’s 34th birthday in August 2020, her first after her demise, I invited all those from across India who had worked with Sarla over the years and together we pledged to keep her work alive. In the last year, I took over the projects she was involved in and I am trying to complete them. While the pain of losing her will never subside and the void will never get filled, the least I can do to keep her alive in my memories is to continue her work.

Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day.

(Image credit: Sarla Siriwas’ Facebook page)

Sunil Kumar’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Eshwari Shukla’s story here. She lost her father when she was only 13.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Sunil Kumar and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

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.