The bodies came, one after another, after another, after another. So many bodies that ambulances and trucks taking them to the cemetery blocked traffic.
In Delhi, a city where someone dies from Covid-19 every four minutes, every day is a battle not only for hospital beds but for a space to say goodbye to the dead with dignity.
The official capacity at the Ghazipur crematorium in East Delhi is 38 bodies, and before the pandemic, only once in living memory had all funeral pyres been taken in one day. Now, as a second deadly wave of coronavirus sweeps through the capital, sometimes 150 bodies have already arrived early in the morning. The staff has expanded operations to the parking lot, but it is not enough.
In the Indian capital, the virus shows no signs of abating. On Friday morning, Delhi recorded another record of 395 deaths and 24,235 cases. Across India, the total number of new confirmed new cases was 386,693, another world record. Crematories are expanding at a rapid pace, trying to increase the capacity to cope with 1,000 cremations a day.
It is here, among the pyres that are rebuilt every day for the last Hindu and Sikh rites, that the devastation caused by Covid-19 in the capital is most viscerally felt. Most lost their lives because families couldn’t get them a hospital bed, they couldn’t get them oxygen. Some came to hospitals only to have hospitals run out of oxygen.
Sitting on the ground in personal protective equipment in the sweltering Delhi heat, sobbing into his hands and wiping sweat from his forehead, 36-year-old Rakesh Kumar described how his family had driven to all the hospitals in Delhi and the neighboring city of Noida when her mother Sumitra Devi had started struggling to breathe as her oxygen collapsed. But the 56-year-old never got a bed and died Thursday morning.
“We tried a lot of hospitals, but even when his oxygen dropped to 40% we couldn’t get him a bed,” Kumar said. “We kept going to hospitals where they told us there were beds available, but each time, the hospital said they were full. If we could have gotten her a bed or her oxygen in time, we could have saved her. But he didn’t even have a chance to survive. “
Like many who give rest to their dead, he was angry. “The government has failed its citizens, why couldn’t it provide us with the medical care we need?” Kumar said.
In his 30 years helping to incinerate the dead, Sunil Kumar Sharma, who is the head of the Ghazipur crematorium, said he had never imagined such scenes. “So many dead,” he said. “It seems that if this continues, there will be no one left in Delhi.”
Although there is supposed to be a strict protocol on handling the bodies of coronavirus victims, Sharma said hospitals often shipped corpses without any protective wrapping, risking exposing their staff to the virus. Some families, he said, tried to hide that their relative had died from Covid-19.
“It’s been terrible here and very scary,” Sharma said. “We work 20 hours every day now. I am so tired and my soul feels broken by what is happening. People are now throwing away the bodies and running away, so we have to perform the last rites in their place so that these bodies still have some dignity. “
The crematorium consumes 60 tons of wood per day. “At night, I worry about how we will manage tomorrow when more bodies arrive,” Sharma said. “What if there are too many for us?”
Here so many bodies are being given their late rites that the air is pungent and sour, thick with smoke from thousands of recent cremations. The smoking pyres of the day before were still scattered with some offerings, mangoes and pomegranates and bright orange sacred flowers lying in the ash; specks of life in the remains of death. And there was pain, pain everywhere.
A woman dressed in a dark green sari whispered prayers under her breath through the ambulance window, where inside her husband, who died that morning from Covid-19, lay wrapped in protective cloth. She tried to put red bracelets on her body, but a man with PPE gently pushed her away trying to move her body.
Ajay Gupta howled in deep anguish as the body of his brother JJ Ram was brought to the crematorium and placed on the pyre. Ram was finally admitted to the hospital last week when he was having trouble breathing and had been getting better, even making video calls to Gupta from his bed. But according to the family, the hospital ran out of oxygen and Ram had passed away.
“The staff told us a couple of days ago that it would be okay,” Gupta said. Gupta was also a victim of the ruthless black market that has emerged in Delhi for oxygen and drugs like remdesivir, which are sold to desperate relatives at exorbitant prices.
Gupta said he had used every penny he had to buy remdesivir for his brother on the black market for 630,000 rupees (£ 6,100), more than 10 times the market price, at the direction of hospital doctors, despite doubts about its use in the treatment of Covid. 19 patients.
“I feel like everything has been destroyed and a hole in my heart,” said Gupta, who like many, directed his anger at the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The central government should be blamed for my brother’s death,” he said.
Ambulance driver Narendra Kumar, 26, who collects Covid bodies every day from homes and hospitals to take them to crematoria, also confirmed that most of those he saw had died from lack of oxygen. “This is terrible work,” Kumar said. “I am so afraid of infecting my family that I no longer go home. At the end of the day, I park my ambulance outside Ganga Ram hospital and sleep there. “
Krishnan Pal, 48, who sold the popular Indian snack pani puri at his post in Delhi, he was one of those who died after being repeatedly turned away from overloaded hospitals when he was struggling to breathe. His cousin Kali Charan Kashap said they had tried every hospital in Delhi but couldn’t get a bed, so they took him to Agra, a city in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. In Agra they were told that there were beds, but that the hospitals had no oxygen. While driving to Bareilly, another city in Uttar Pradesh, Pal died.
“People literally die on the roads because they can’t breathe,” Kashap said, between stifled sobs, as the family waited for Pal’s body to arrive from the morgue. “India needs oxygen, so I ask this government: where is it?”
The political implications of the second wave of coronavirus in the Modi government are becoming apparent. According to the Global Leader Approval TrackerModi has suffered an unprecedented six-point drop in popularity in the past week, with his approval rating at its lowest in history, though still high at 67%, and his disapproval rating rising to 28%.
Vaccines are believed by many to be the only long-term way out of India’s coronavirus crisis, but citizens of Delhi took a hit this week when the local government said plans to open vaccines to anyone over the age of 18 to starting on Saturday they would be indefinitely delayed due to a foul. of supplies. A similar shortage is being experienced across India.
Although Delhi state chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said authorities would make the vaccines available “as soon as possible,” several private clinics in Delhi said they did not expect stocks for at least another month or even two.
So for now, Delhi’s crematoria and cemeteries will continue to bear the burden of death that engulfs the city every day. In Ghazipur, when the sun set and all the pyres finally reunited, they caught fire at the same time, rising in a fiery roar of heat and pain.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism