In India’s capital city, citizens are dying in their hospital beds because they can’t breathe. Their lungs, clotted with Covid-induced pneumonia, need oxygen to function. Overwhelmed by India’s tsunami-like second wave and undermined by the smug inertia of the state, hospitals run out of oxygen and patients choke to death in front of their horrified families.
Sometimes hospitals will discharge patients on oxygen support, casually giving their relatives a day or two to find rare air. They set off on frantic odysseys around Delhi, looking for one of two sources of oxygen: a heavy cylinder that weighs 50kg or more and looks like a dented relic from the Industrial Revolution, or a concentrator which extracts oxygen from the air in the room and pipes it into the patient. Delhi is something of a seller’s market. Prices vary. The going rate for a concentrator this week is 160,000 rupees, or slightly more than £1,500. That is a month’s salary for a tenured professor in a public university.
There is a harrowing video of a traumatised and angry young woman standing in the lobby of a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. She is looking into the camera and raging. Her father’s oxygen levels are dangerously low. The hospital, she says, has run out of oxygen twice. Her father is being given hand-pumped oxygen for which she’s paying 40,000 rupees a day. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has threatened legal action against anyone who complains of oxygen shortages because he insists there is no such shortage. She calls him out and dares him to come to the hospital to make good his threat.
Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister in question, is a Hindu monk with a vigilante past and a well-earned reputation for being a dangerous man to cross. He has recently threatened to seize the property of people complaining of the unavailability of oxygen because they are lying rumour-mongers, spreading panic. For a young woman to dare a politician of Adityanath’s ilk to do his worst in Lucknow is a measure of her – and the general public’s – desperation.
A 26-year-old man in Amethi, a town in Uttar Pradesh, tweets out an appeal for an oxygen cylinder for his ailing grandfather. His grandfather then dies of a heart attack. The police press criminal charges against him because his “false tweet” has brought the government into disrepute. For the month of April, newspaper headlines in India read like stage directions for some black farce.
The principal scientific adviser to the Indian government said in an interview that the government made great efforts to ramp up hospital and health care infrastructure in response to the first wave, “but as that wave declined, so perhaps did the sense of urgency to get this completed”. This distinguished scientist, a fellow of the Royal Society, clearly moonlights as one of the world’s great ironists. The declining sense of urgency he refers to must describe, in its understated way, the government’s concerted efforts to get massive crowds to gather and mingle in the middle of this pandemic.
The Bharatiya Janata party’s chief minister of Uttarakhand (the Himalayan state bordering Uttar Pradesh) allows the largest riverside pilgrimage in the world, the Kumbh Mela, to gather right in the middle of the second wave, because astrologers rule that it has to happen a year ahead of schedule. His decision has the prime minister’s blessing. Even as this mother of all super-spreader events helps seed the virus among the million-plus pilgrims gathered at the city of Haridwar, the prime minister is pictured marvelling – unmasked – at the largest election crowd he says he has ever seen in his life, in West Bengal.
Meanwhile, back in the nation’s capital, cremation grounds run out of pyre spaces and distraught mourners begin burning their dead on pavements and in public parks. As the virus rages through the city it becomes nearly impossible to get a Covid test. If you are lucky enough to get one, it takes up to a week to get the result. Until it arrives, if you have a severe case of Covid and need hospitalisation, you can’t be admitted to a hospital because you don’t have the paperwork to prove you are positive.
Delhi’s state government imposes a curfew to break the chain of transmission. Thirteen months on from the imposition of the first lockdown, it’s clear that we aren’t back to square one; we have been transported, unaccountably, to some strange circle of hell. The city’s central vista looks like a dug-up moonscape. Narendra Modi’s pharaonic folly – an ugly, extravagant and unnecessary new parliament building – can’t be paused even for a pandemic. It is designated an “essential service” and allowed to carry on during the curfew.
Something else has changed. The Indian Premier League is back after its gap year in the Gulf and Delhi is one of its venues. In this necropolis lit by pyres, the IPL’s floodlights signal showtime. Dedicated ambulances, Covid tests on demand, oxygen on tap … only the best will do for the Indian cricket board’s Roman circus. There is an authentically Nero-vian air to this spectacle, with its grand indifference to the smell of burning. Living in Delhi, it’s hard to ignore; it is the unmistakable scent of a failing state.