A month of firsts.
Attending a cremation on a WhatsApp video call was not a use of the chat service I had ever imagined. I was used to examining technology for its policy, legal and economic aspects, not to mourn someone’s death.
A move to the United States had meant several things for us, but never had we thought it would include a desperate son watching his PPE-covered mother and sister lighting the pyre of his father back in India. Zoom fatigue of 2020 had been real, but sitting through a havan, a fire ritual, performed 7,000 miles away to pay respects to the soul of my husband’s father taught me about a new use of the ubiquitous app.
In May, I lost my father-in-law officially to Covid-19, but in reality because of a callous government, malpractice by overworked doctors, and swindlers taking advantage of the pandemic.
Crises are clarifying. If this one has taught me anything, it was that you should never be overconfident in your blessings.
I had lived through the pandemic in New York City with all the fear, unpredictability, and the sirens of ambulances blazing. I had joined everyone in letting out a collective sigh of relief when the US’ vaccine rollout had seen success after success. Enthused by our second shots of the Moderna vaccine, my husband and I spent Wednesday, 29 April, looking at tickets online for that long overdue visit to see our families in India. My father-in-law was eagerly looking forward to this trip with child-like excitement. We were going to have a 75th birthday celebration for him.
And then came Thursday.
We, in the Indian-American community, live with the constant fear of that dreaded phone call about the news of a loved one getting infected by or succumbing to Covid-19, worrying whether we will reach in time to say our goodbyes. All of us unwillingly plan for that rushed trip to the airport in our heads.
At 1 am EST, that phone call told us that my father-in-law who had been having mild symptoms of Covid-19, after having received one dosage of the Covishield vaccine, had taken a turn for the worse. What followed that call seems like a distant nightmare now. For four days, my husband and I in New York, his brother-in-law in Mumbai, and his sister on ground in Delhi, ran a control room with at least 200 hundred people in our network scrambling for home ICUs, nurses, insulin, oxygen cylinders, concentrators, remdesivir, etc. Once we got these, we moved onto looking for a regular bed in a hospital, then an O2 bed, and then an ICU bed, across Delhi NCR. There was no WhatsApp group, personal or professional network, family or friends that we didn’t appeal to.
We faced malpractice from doctors who didn’t bother to ask about co-morbidities before administering steroids, misinformation, callousness, profiteering, fake medicines, empty cylinders, and red tape at almost every step. We called up every single number forwarded to us as we were left to arrange for everything. The medical infrastructure of India’s capital city was overwhelmed. Most relatives or friends could not come to help either out of fear of the disease if they were not already sick, or because the Delhi government had imposed curfew. But we also met our share of good samaritans. Strangers dropping off cylinders, leads being offered for oxygen concentrators, doctors ready to give us a crash course to supervise my father-in-law, and medicines that appeared magically from our network. Thankfully, there was no time to pay attention to our emotions or anxiety. No dystopian novels, Kafka-esque books, historical readings about wars had prepared me for this. The best and the worst of humanity emerged contemporaneously.
When a friend helped us get an ICU bed at Medanta — one of the finest hospitals in the country — we all savoured a brief moment of victory as if getting a bed meant we had won the battle of his life.
I went to fetch some water and call up my mother-in-law to reassure her of a positive outcome for her husband. I am a good liar, I told myself. I didn’t have time to ponder over this statement as my husband, who had been coordinating the hospital admission with his sister, emerged in the bedroom gesturing that he was gone and they were administering CPR.
Was I a good liar?
One does not drop things dramatically like in the movies, but one just freezes, momentarily. The moment seems to last forever before the realisation that luxury of freezing isn’t available to those who have to figure out death certificates, cremation process, and the ever-important Aadhaar number of that person who is now a ‘body’.
Hindu custom requires the cremation of the body within 24 hours of death. I have often wondered why can’t they embalm the bodies like some Christians do, so as not to deprive loved ones of that last goodbye. Much to the chagrin of my mother, my father and I have often joked about our preferred ways to die, rituals we don’t want followed, our favourite water bodies around exotic locations in the world where we want our ashes to be strewn. This is our way of teetering around the difficult conversation about death and normalising it, because we both know in our hearts what such a loss will do to each of us.
I don’t know what my husband and his father had talked about. But now I was privy to calls in helping figure out gentle ways of breaking the news to his mother, who was herself recovering from Covid-19. Do we know anyone who can help with the cremation process? Will they release his body to the family? What’s his grandmother’s middle name (for the death certificate)? Can the pandits carry out rituals online? These are the questions we were immediately inundated with.
I was angry at the artificial calamity created by the government, but an unusual calm engulfed my husband. He immediately sprung into channeling his energies towards finding families who needed assistance. Currently, there is no dearth of such people. Within an hour of his father’s death, he had posted messages about the unused oxygen cylinders we had gathered before he gasped for his last breath, the four out of six remdesivir vials that remained, and the oxygen concentrator that was used but no longer needed.
His son wanted to do something, anything.
So, he did what his father would have liked — paid his respects by helping save another life. He calmly juggled this while being warned by a grieving mother to not even attempt coming home to a country that had turned into a war zone. Her perspicacity stunned me, her ferocious maternal instinct moved me.
He started fielding even more calls of distress and help. You see, now we are experts on how to verify sources for basic medical supplies, we can precisely ask the right questions before administering dangerous cocktails of steroids to patients with co-morbidities, we have become a repository of valuable information on how to deal with hospital administrators who will take our calls.
My husband is not innovating and making new products for his company, but thinking of creative ways to connect doctors in the US with Indian patients. I am not lawyering, but stewing in anger while coordinating things with the family. We do our bit to help, but the news of deaths keeps coming. A 34-year-old here, a 55-year-old there, nine-month-old twins who have recovered, and a three-year-old who has not.
How to lose hope
For months, everyone told my sceptic self to take it easy and not be so cynical about the situation in India. I had been told the country had won the war on the pandemic. My favourite science writer wondered in The New Yorker: “Why does the pandemic seem to be hitting some countries harder than others?“. The macho, marketing messiah who occupies the seat of the Prime Minister of India had boasted about our vaccine diplomacy at Davos, while my parents complained about unavailability of vaccines for their second jab. ‘Think positive’, most of my Indian friends and family told me.
But for me, the crisis was no ‘whodunnit’. If you have worked on data, its gathering and verification, like my organisation in India does, it’s hard to fully trust what the Indian government’s narrative wants you to believe. The Right to Information (RTI) petitions my team was filing, and the information that was being denied, portended a new wave of the pandemic. Visuals of India’s assembly election rallies, religious mass gatherings, supported and encouraged by the current leaders, all spoke of super-spreader events. The calls for help for hospital contacts, beds, oxygen that had started in April were turning into an avalanche. The conversations with friends about policy failures conversations had stopped, most were too overwhelmed with grief. I could barely keep my cool, and lost it in an interview about technology companies and their role in the pandemic, while coaxing my family to vaccinate themselves.
I have never been in a war, but it feels like several of those I love and care for are in the middle of one while I sit here, fully vaccinated and helpless.
“What is happening in India now is quite similar to what the United States experienced in its coronavirus surges,” wrote Nobel prize-winning economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in The New York Times. I want to scream at how wrong they are. New York was a war, but against a virus not against a negligent government that has turned against its own citizens by prioritising electoral victory over people’s lives.
Excitement used to be my general state of mind, now anger is.
I get angry:
When politicians want to tell me there is no shortage of beds, I want to show them my phone that never quietens.
When ministers want to counter ‘one-sided’ narrative in global media about the Indian government’s Covid incompetence, I want to bawl and highlight the truth of those of who have lost lives, and the dead bodies floating in the rivers.
When courts don’t grant bail to political prisoners to see their dying fathers, I question my law licence and the defence of the constitutional and moral values of my country.
When profiteers, hoarders, swindlers want to get rich on essential medical supplies, I fight to suppress the criminal thoughts that cross my mind.
When the official death count stops at 3,000, I want to show them the grainy video of my father-in-law’s cremation ground that looks like a forest fire.
When most of India preaches about morality, religious values, my mind can no longer suffer that hypocrisy. Which part of the Hindu religion teaches us that it’s okay to callously watch your own people die?
When the pharmaceutical companies assisted by economies of the global north tell us it’s not about patents, and ask “Who will make these vaccines next time”, I want to wail and tell them if we don’t stop this, there will be no next time.
But my anger, unless channelised towards real change, is of no use to anybody, says my father.
The failure that created this apocalypse is not over. The waterfall effect of this crisis still continues, with nearly 4,00,000 officially reported new cases every day. Every death, every theft, every mistake all point towards a warning for the human race — unless all of us are safe, no one is. Last year it was China, then Italy, then New York. Today it is India, Brazil, and if we all don’t channel our anger towards some real action, it will be everyone.
The author is is a technology lawyer based in New York and the Founder of Software Freedom Law Centre, India. Views are personal.
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