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June 15 2021
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Previous story The poor, the rich: In a sick India, all are on their own Next story
Published on June 4, 2021 3:29 AM

by ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL, AIJAZ HUSSAIN and TIM SULLIVAN

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Normally, families wait as the fire burns down, paying their respects and waiting for the ashes. But immense fires burned around the Amrohi family. The heat was crushing. Ashes filled the air. Cremations are deeply important in Hinduism, a way to free a person’s soul so it can be reborn elsewhere. A priest normally oversees the rites. Family and friends gather. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre.
 
NEW DELHI — For the family of the retired diplomat, the terror struck as they tried desperately to get him past the entrance doors of a private hospital. For the New Delhi family, it came when they had to create a hospital room in their ground-floor apartment. For the son of an illiterate woman who raised her three children by scavenging human hair, it came as his mother waited days for an ICU bed, insisting she'd be fine.

Three families in a nation of 1.3 billion. Seven cases of COVID-19 in a country facing an unparalleled surge, with more than 300,000 people testing positive every day.

When the pandemic exploded here in early April, each of these families found themselves struggling to keep relatives alive as the medical system neared collapse and the government was left unprepared.

Across India, families scour cities for coronavirus tests, medicine, ambulances, oxygen and hospital beds. When none of that works, some have to deal with loved ones zippered into body bags.

The desperation comes in waves. New Delhi was hit at the start of April, with the the worst coming near the end of the month. The southern city of Bengaluru was hit about two weeks later. The surge is at its peak now in many small towns and villages, and just reaching others.

But when a pandemic wave hits, everyone is on their own. The poor. The rich. The well-connected bureaucrats who hold immense sway here, and the people who clean the sewers. Wealthy businessmen fight for hospital beds, and powerful government officials send tweets begging for oxygen. Middle-class families scrounge wood for funeral pyres, and in places where there's no wood to be found, hundreds of families have been forced to dump their relatives' bodies into the Ganges River.

The rich and well-connected, of course, still have money and contacts to smooth the search for ICU beds and oxygen tanks. But rich and poor alike have been left gasping for breath outside overflowing hospitals.

"This has now become normal," said Abhimanyu Chakravorty, 34, whose extended New Delhi family frantically tried to arrange his father's medical care at home. "Everyone is running helter-skelter, doing whatever they can to save their loved ones."

But every day, thousands more people die.

The Chakravorty family, New Delhi

COVID-19 tests. That's all the family wanted after a niggling cough had spread from relative to relative. But in a city where the virus had descended like a whirlwind, even that had become difficult.

First they called the city's top diagnostic labs. Then the smaller ones. They called for days. ADVERTISEMENT

The ground-floor apartment, in an affluent neighborhood with a tiny, well-tended garden and a spreading hibiscus tree in bloom, has been home to the Chakravorty family for more than 40 years. There's 73-year-old Prabir, the family patriarch and widower, a construction executive who has long ignored his family's pleas to stop working, and his two sons, Prateek and Abhimanyu. Prateek, who runs an air-conditioning company, shares a room with his wife, Shweta, and their seven-year-old son Agastya. Rounding out the clan is Prabir's sister, Taposhi, and her adult son, Protim.

They tried to isolate as best they could, seven of them retreating to various corners of the three-bedroom apartment, and kept calling testing centers.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over COVID-19. In March, the health minister claimed the country was in the pandemic's "endgame."

By then, medical experts had been warning for weeks of an approaching viral wave. The government ignored the warnings, allowing the immense Kumbh Mela religious festival to go forward, with millions of Hindu devotees gathering shoulder-to-shoulder along the Ganges River. Hundreds of thousands also turned out for state election rallies.

The Chakravorty family, like most Indians, hadn't expected things to grow so bad. Certainly not in the capital, which has much better medical care than most of the country, and where those with money have access to private hospitals.

Finally, Shweta found a lab to administer tests. A man arrived in head-to-toe in protective clothing to swab everyone. It seemed, he told them wearily, as if everyone in this city of 29 million people needed coronavirus tests.

The family had their first scare the next day, when a weakened Prabir nearly fell and his sons had to carry him to bed. Stomach problems and a raging fever kept him there.

"He was visibly shaking," said Abhimanyu, a 34-year-old news editor.

They got the results three days later. Four members of the family tested positive, with a few losing their senses of taste and smell. But it was far worse for Prabir.

Prateek struggled to find a doctor for his father. One wouldn't answer the phone, another had his own emergency. Finally, a relative in Thailand contacted a friend, a New Delhi doctor, who said ...


Background

Over 30% even have less than $1.25 per day available - they are considered extremely poor. This makes the Indian subcontinent one of the poorest countries in the world; women and children, the weakest members of Indian society, suffer most.

India is the second most populous country after China with about 1.2 billion people and isthe seventh largest country in the world with an area of ??3,287,000 km². The highly contrasted country has enjoyed growth rates of up to 10% over many years and is one of the largest economies in the world, with a gross domestic product of 1,644 billion US dollars. But only a small percentage of the Indian population has benefited from this impressive economic boom so far, as the majority of people in India are still living in abject poverty. Poverty in India: from the village to the slum

Poverty in india is preventing children from getting an educationMore than 800 million people in India are considered poor. Most of them live in the countryside and keep afloat with odd jobs. The lack of employment which provides a livable wage in rural areas is driving many Indians into rapidly growing metropolitan areas such as Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore or Calcutta. There, most of them expect a life of poverty and despair in the mega-slums, made up of millions of corrugated ironworks, without sufficient drinking water supply, without garbage disposal and in many cases without electricity. The poor hygiene conditions are the cause of diseases such as cholera, typhus and dysentery, in which especially children suffer and die.