Introduction by Tanvi Misra
In April, the trend line of COVID-19 cases reported in India started rising so steeply that it looked vertical.
Like elsewhere around the world, the pandemic has not been an equalizer in India. It has subjected women (cis- and trans) and non-binary people to even more precarity that they ordinarily face and compounded the discrimination towards marginalized religious, caste, and tribal groups. Urban women who work professional jobs have largely weathered the economic crisis. Domestic workers, street vendors, and day laborers in the same cities, however, have lost their livelihoods. The burden of caring and household work during successive lockdowns has also fallen disproportionately on women.
This exponential surge occurred while many countries in the west were turning a corner in the pandemic. The United States, with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, reached a significant milestone: 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were doled out by April 22, as more than 61 percent of the population received at least one dose. While disparities and vaccine hesitancy persisted in pockets, mask mandates loosened, travel restrictions lifted and Americans entertained the prospect of a post-pandemic summer. By contrast, Indians were — and continue to be — under siege by an evolving virus.
With the latest surge, the trauma cycle is repeating itself with even higher intensity. In New Delhi, one in four people tested for the virus were positive in mid-April — a terrifying prospect for a city with twice the population of New York City. This COVID-19 positivity rate climbed up to a third soon after, driven by new, more infectious variants of the virus. The strained medical infrastructure in the city broke down. The number of hospital beds fell below a 100 and the oxygen supplies started dwindling. People found themselves on their own, gasping for breath.
Some went to great lengths to track down oxygen cylinders, paying dramatically inflated prices on the black market to save their loved ones. Many took to social media and messaging services in desperation, pleading for medical assistance in hopes that fellow citizens might come through. Ordinary citizens created mutual aid documents, collating lists of resources and phone numbers, and helped guide individual requests where they could.
But it wasn’t enough. On April 17, a veteran journalist from the city of Lucknow died live-tweeting his dipping oxygen levels, one among many whose requests for help went unmet. Thousands of Indians on the other side of the digital divide, such as wage laborers, did not have access to lifelines on social media. As the virus spread around them, many of the country’s citizens lost hope.
On April 24, The New York Times reported what journalists and observers on the ground had long been raising alarm over: Coronavirus deaths were being underreported and undercounted. Photographs started emerging of mass funeral pyres and overwhelmed crematoriums. With over 300,000 positives reported every day, India now accounted for one in three of the new cases reported in the world, driving the global high.
The increased attention spurred international action. After receiving wide-ranging criticism, the Biden administration pledged spare vaccines and raw materials it had been sitting on. Other governments followed suit. Critics say these gestures should go further.
India’s devastating second COVID-19 wave undoubtedly took place within the context of a global healthcare inequality, where richer countries tend to get first dibs and hoard access to vaccine advancements. However, its own government is not without blame. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed strict but chaotic lockdown measures last year. Those measures were actually counterproductive, actually helping spread the virus, The New York Times reported. This year, the administration has been lax, focusing on election rallies rather than adequate prevention measures or proper messaging. It is not an accident that India, a world leader in vaccine production, now faces a shortfall of the COVID-19 vaccine. It has been running out of raw materials, unable to keep pace with the magnitude of the current crisis. Meanwhile, the government is scrambling to censor the growing international critique.
As with all disasters, this one worsens existing inequalities across gender, caste, religion, and class — and it is partially man-made. Below are some glimpses of what it is like to live through it as an Indian woman.
New Delhi: ‘We Keep Our Pain Buried In Our Hearts To Serve People’
By Fahad Shah
Hours before her night shift at the hospital, when 32-year-old nurse Rakhi John received a call from her father she burst into tears. Her grandmother, who raised her since she was one, had succumbed to COVID-19 at her home in the south Indian state of Kerala. John felt orphaned. … READ MORE
Uttar Pradesh: ‘Our First Duty Is To Save Lives’
By Sarita Santoshini
In Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, 55-year-old Gyanwati Devi quickly stops by the home of her supervisor in the evening to collect medicines. Earlier in the day, she visited 50 village households for a survey of people showing symptoms of illness, carefully noting down their names and advising them what to do. For over a year now, Devi, an accredited social health worker or ASHA, has been on the frontline in her community, responsible for door-to-door surveys to screen and track COVID-19—especially among returning migrant workers—providing medicine to isolating patients, and creating general awareness of the virus and how to prevent it. That morning, she had finally received test reports of her two sons and daughter-in-law. They were all COVID positive. … READ MORE
Namakkal, Tamil Nadu: ‘When Will This End?’
By Dharani Thangavelu
Devi has been on the phone all morning. She’s called contractors, masons and friends to see if they have work for her tomorrow. But so far, no luck. Tomorrow she will try again. … READ MORE
Gangyasar, Rajasthan: ‘I have been battling renal failure, so I thought this was easy’
By Sonal Kellogg
Taramani Devi, 43, has been infected with coronavirus three times—and recovered from it three times—while battling kidney failure. The last time she was infected COVID-19, it was two days after she had undergone a surgery for a kidney transplant this past March, when her husband Gangadhar Singh donated a kidney to his wife. … READ MORE
Goa: ‘Even if we register, I don’t think there are enough vaccines to go around’
By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
For Diana*, it’s déjà vu all over again.
After a 3-day partial lockdown, the state is back to business with “restrictions.” Casinos are closed until May 10, hotels remain open as there is no ban on tourists and restaurants are open with 50% seating capacity or for takeaways only. With neighboring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra under strict lockdown, drive-in tourists have also dropped significantly. … READ MORE
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir: ‘I Cannot Afford To Sit At Home Even For A Day’
By Raihana Maqbool
Wearing a Kashmiri pheran and a white scarf wrapped on her head, Fazi Begum, calls out customers loudly to buy fish from her so that she can sell all her stock before dusk. … READ MORE.
‘I Once Fell Unconscious Due To The Stress. I Had To Do It All On My Own.’
By Nayanika Guha
Akanksha*, 22, a final-year law student from Tamil Nadu, says she was always “on call” at home while taking care of her father for two months while he recovered from COVID-19 in June and July last year. At the same time, she spent four hours each day doing university work and another two to four hours at her job. … READ MORE.
New Delhi: ‘ In A Situation Of Life Or Death, This Was My Only Option.’
By Anika Nayak
Aditi, 37, bought Remdesivir, an antiviral medication currently authorized for COVID-19 treatment in India, from the black market in Delhi for her father who has been on a ventilator in the ICU for four days. She searched for 48 hours non-stop, receiving leads from friends, family members, social media hashtags, and online citizen-led volunteer groups to find the drug. One unsuccessful lead she came across was from a young girl who was selling Remdesivir originally bought for her parents who both died from the coronavirus. … READ MORE.
Garbhe, Madhya Pradesh: ‘My Wife Was So Brave. She Looked At Me And Said There’s No Need To Worry Now.’
By Varsha Bansal
On the afternoon of April 6, Pramila Devi Kol, 26, went into labor. Her husband, Sajjan Kumar Kol, dialed the emergency helpline 108 to call an ambulance to get her to the hospital in time for the delivery. The operator reassured him they had dispatched an ambulance, but almost an hour went by and there was no vehicle in sight. With Pramila in pain, Sajjan panicked and set out on foot to find their own transportation. … READ MORE.
New Delhi: ‘That 22-Year-Old Priya on Instagram’
By Riddhi Dastidar
On April 18, as India’s national capital was running out of hospital beds, and Twitter was flooded with #SOSDelhi tweets that would soon become familiar, college freshman Anuradha Malik, 18, saw an Instagram story linking to a volunteer form. The next day, as Delhi went into lockdown again, she was added to a Whatsapp group. (Anuradha and the other volunteers asked to use a pseudonym, citing concerns for their safety.) … READ MORE.
Rishikesh, Uttarakhand: ‘You Keep Questioning Yourself’
By Romita Saluja
Surbhi Dasbegan to feel that India was losing control of COVID earlier this month when seven of her colleagues and three patients tested positive for the virus. She worked in the COVID ward of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh for three months last year but, Das says, the situation at the hospital is 10 times more severe now. … READ MORE.
Panaji, Goa: ‘They Haven’t Called Me Back’
By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
At the Panjim Market in Goa, local vendors like Tulsi, 55, seem unconcerned about the second wave. Sitting on an elevated platform under the soaring roof of the market, she’s surrounded by piles of mangoes and steel cups full of shiny black local berries. … READ MORE.
Nagpur, Maharashtra: ‘We Are Carrying A Massive Guilt’
By Sarita Santoshini
Preeti Namjoshi, a 26-year-old resident doctor in the final days of her three-year masters’ degree in internal medicine, was supposed to be preparing for final exams right now. Instead she finds herself struggling to assist with the surging number of people sick and dying from COVID-19 at Government Medical College and Hospital in Nagpur. … READ MORE.
Chennai, Tamil Nadu: ‘What Has to Happen Will Happen’
By Mahima Jain
It’s noon and Asha Mutha, 53, has just finished cooking lunch. She wipes the sweat off her forehead, pushes the thick frames of her spectacles up the bridge of her nose, and tucks the pink viscose sari around her hip. … READ MORE.
Editor’s Note: This feature is part of The Fuller Project’s ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 disaster in India and will be continually updated.