Saif Ali of Munger (Bihar) returned from Qatar on March 2, 2020, with fever. On March 21, he fell silent, he was only 38, his sister’s fiancé Mohd Shahab recounts. Ali’s one among more than 125,000 who have lost their lives to Covid-19 in India, becoming a part of the fast-moving pandemic statistics. This was the first Covid case in Bihar at a time when much less was known about the infection and its aftermath, so it made news. But beyond that news was the 20-day journey and the trauma for Ali’s family, switching from one hospital to another, one town to the other in search of cure for a young man who just had a mild fever when he landed in India. His would-be brother-in-law Shahab, as Ali’s companion and attendant all through, narrates the events in detail over multiple sessions as he finds time between his tuition classes.
Like Shahab, Sukhwinder Singh of Ludhiana saw things closely as he was the one to take his wife’s sister Pooja Rani, 42, to a Patiala hospital for a mild ailment on March 29. She was declared dead four days later, Singh, a small-scale businessman, says. Reason of death: Covid-19. The three children of Pooja Rani, a widow, are now part of Singh’s family and he’s anxious whether he would be able to handle the additional responsibility while his business is down….
Mumbai-based Majidullah Khan borrowed a two-wheeler scooter during the lockdown to take his wife Zulekha Khan, 45, to a local hospital for a regular oxygen treatment required for a chronic lung disease. That was April 2. Some 24 hours later, doctors said Zulekha had died of Covid….
Delhi’s Jaswinder Singh still can’t stop regretting that April trip to a prominent government hospital when his wife Manjeet Kaur, 42, complained of a slight uneasiness in stomach. Lack of treatment and nursing care as well as poor state of infrastructure are among the things that Singh remembers about the days when his wife was hospitalised. ‘’She did not step out of home for months, she could not have been infected by Covid… We used to speak over video calls when she was in hospital and she had no signs of the infection,’’ Singh says months after his wife was declared Covid positive and she died. Kaur had asked her husband just a day before her death if she had Covid as the ward boy told her it was a Covid wing. No doctor looked her up.
Jalpaiguri’s Satish too is convinced that his father Arun Lohar, 55, couldn’t have had Covid. Lohar was admitted in a Siliguri government hospital for diabetes related complications end of March. On March 28, he tested negative. Around that time, the first positive case surfaced in the region—Sunita Devi—making the system nervous. ‘’My father was kept in a bad condition, there was nobody to administer him insulin also. All patients were kept in isolation and left on their own as the hospital staff dreaded catching Covid,’’ recalls Satish. On April 4, Lohar had a heart attack which he could not survive. By the next morning, local TV channels were airing the news that Lohar was Covid positive.
Whether it’s Delhi or Maharashtra, Bihar or Telengana, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, personal tragedies of Covid-19 stand out against the daily data coming from the government and research organisations. Business Standard contacted the families of around 50 such persons who could not recover from Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic when fear and stigma had gripped the country: While many spoke in detail about their close relatives who they had failed to save, some others refused to engage at all on the subject. While some promised to talk later and never did, there were those who claimed there were no Covid deaths in their family when the government lists stated otherwise.
Kota-based Abdul Sattar, 50, for instance, is counted as a case of Covid death in government records. But one of his relatives told this newspaper that 26 people in his community were quarantined in Raipur and that there’s nothing more to it…..Mir Ghulam Nabi, 54, from Bandipora, Jammu & Kashmir, is listed among the Covid casualty. His kin picking up the phone confirmed there was Covid in the family, but he wouldn’t say anything else….. The family of 44-year-old O Venkatesh from Telangana was not in a position to talk about the loss it had to face more than two months ago…. It was not very different when asked about Himachal Pradesh resident Tenzin Choephel, who had succumbed to Covid at age 69…. There’s also the case of Sadiq Basha, 46, from Vellore (Tamil Nadu). He’s listed among those who couldn’t fight Covid. But the man answering the call claimed he was Basha himself. ‘’I was quarantined as part of Delhi’s Nizamuddin Dargah group who attended a Tabligi Jamaat conference. Im fine,’’ he says laughing, months after the controversial gathering at an international conference organised by Tablighi Jamaat in violation of the lockdown guidelines.
The conversations, spread over months, brought out some striking points. In many cases, the primary caretaker who’s been around the patient for long durations has escaped getting infected. Also, most believe that it’s not Covid but the negligence of hospitals across small and big cities that killed their parents, partners, children and siblings. ‘’If only I had not taken my wife to a hospital that night. I should have listened to the ambulance driver,’’ Delhi’s Jaswinder Singh says in a tired voice even now. Singh, who can’t get over the fact that his wife’s gold ear-rings and mobile phone have been taken away at the hospital, is not alone.
"I got the Covid positive report for my father after his death from the North Bengal Virology Department, but I fully doubt it," says Jalpaiguri-based Lohar’s son. "I was all alone with nobody to back me…. If only doctors could focus on primary treatment," he says after losing his parent. "Don’t leave them alone if they are found to be Covid positive," is his plea to everyone.
According to Munger’s Shahab, who has acquired plenty of knowledge on the novel coronavirus after dealing with Saif Ali’s illness, ‘’one won’t die of Covid, but because of other reasons…. Cure is possible if the healthcare system in hospitals is not negligent.’’ Another takeaway from Shahab, who (along with 19 others in Saif Ali’s family) was quarantined after what was described as a Covid death: everyone tested negative including Shahab himself, who had not only spent days with Ali during his hospital stay but had also packed his body as the hospital staff had refused to touch. There was not one but three tests for all of them in some 20 days after Saif Ali’s death. He asks, ‘’why is so much stigma being attached to Covid then?’’
Despite deep sorrow and helplessness across families who’ve had a close encounter with Covid and lost someone precious, the interactions reveal kindness and humanity that may seem in short supply in extraordinary times as these. This is just one example: A resident doctor, who doesn’t want to be named, is listed as the attendant of Thane’s Vidyasagar Piraram Tiwari, 50. Tiwari died of Covid. When contacted and asked about his relation with Tiwari, this doctor specialising in general medicine at a Mumbai hospital says, "Vidyasagar Piraram Tiwari is not related to me, but I filled up his form and gave my number as his attendant at the time of admission as he was all alone…. When a patient is serious and there’s no time for formalities or if there’s no attendant, doctors do that." He quickly hangs up after saying he’s not allowed to talk about these things and that he’s late for his rounds.