As India's coronavirus cases surge, volunteers step in where government failed

Jitender Singh Shunty makes a note of cremations that his organisation has conducted in New Delhi
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Suited up in blue protective gear and wearing a face shield under his bright yellow turban, Jitender Singh Shunty sprays disinfectant on bodies at the Seemapuri cremation ground in northeast Delhi.

He has to be quick as corpses are arriving faster than they can be burned. Families and friends of the deceased, who had tried to find hospital beds and oxygen to save their relatives, are thin on patience.

“We are doing everything we can to help these grieving families at least have a decent funeral of their loved ones,” he said as he hurried to attend to another ambulance which had just arrived with two bodies.

Singh Shunty founded Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal 25 years ago, to perform funerals on unclaimed corpses at hospitals.

The NGO turned its attention to Covid-19 victims last year, and since the start of April, when India experienced a resurgence in the virus, he and his 20 volunteers have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies arriving. “Last year we cremated 967 bodies, we have already cremated 670 this month alone,” he said.

On Monday, India reported over 300,000 new coronavirus cases for a 12th straight day, taking its total number of cases to just short of 20 million, while deaths from Covid-19 rose by 3,417 to 218,959 – although many expect the actual number to be much higher.

Inside the crematorium, the bodies are lined up waiting to be placed on the funeral pyre.

“In the first week of April, we had 10 to 12 dead bodies coming for cremation every day. It went up to 40 to 50 per day by mid-April. Now we are cremating over 100 people daily. The other day we cremated 122 people on a single day,” Singh Shunty said.

Apart from arranging funerals, 58-year-old Singh Shunty and his volunteers also ferry the bodies of people who died at home without even getting to a hospital.

Every day, he gets dozens of calls from distressed families who cannot find an ambulance to transport a body to the crematorium.

Having managed to get through the first wave of Covid-19 last year and with efforts focused on its vaccination roll-out, the Narendra Modi government did little to prepare for another wave.

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Elections were organised in many states and large religious gatherings were allowed to go ahead as planned.

But as a new variant of the virus emerged, hospitals soon found themselves with queues of patients outside and no oxygen for those who needed help breathing.

When it became clear that the government response was lacking, volunteers like Singh Shunty stepped forward to help.

The fact that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are helping people in need regardless of their religious differences is seen as perhaps one of the only silver linings in a country where divisive politics has been on the rise since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014.

Distressed by images of makeshift funeral pyres in car parks and queues of desperate patients outside hospitals, members of the Indian diaspora across the globe are also trying to help their country of origin, donating money, shipping supplies or lobbying governments to send aid.

Mohammad Waseem speaks to people outside his shop about oxygen supplies
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Some 20km away from Seemapuri, about a dozen people assemble outside Mohammad Waseem’s gas shop. All have the same question: when will oxygen supplies arrive?

The 30-year-old assures them he will update his WhatsApp status when he gets a delivery.

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In New Delhi and elsewhere in India, oxygen has become a prized commodity. Hospitals are turning away patients as their oxygen supplies run out while some patients are even asked to arrange their own cylinders.

In this mad rush for oxygen, Waseem has gone out of his way to find stock.

“I would only keep oxygen at my shop for AC repairs but since the start of the month, I have been getting more supplies. People have been dying for lack of oxygen so I thought I should do something to help,” he said.

Every morning, there is a long line of people waiting with empty cylinders outside his shop. Some have travelled up to 60km. Waseem refills their cylinders for a meagre 100 rupees (S$1.81).

Volunteers from Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal help cremate bodies in New Delhi.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“Some people tell me I will get infected if I keep going out and meeting so many people who have Covid-19 patients at home. To be honest, I’m scared of it. But then if I don’t help these people in need, it will haunt me all my life,” Waseem said.

The demand for oxygen in a city beleaguered by the virus has gone through the roof. A cylinder full of oxygen can cost up to 50,000 rupees on the black market, a price most Indians cannot afford to pay.

Indians have also turned to the black market to buy life-saving medicines and even unproven treatments at inflated prices in a desperate attempt to keep loved ones alive.

And con men have taken advantage of this despair, with two reportedly arrested for selling fire extinguishers as oxygen cylinders.

Since a fresh lockdown was imposed in New Delhi in recent weeks, Priyanka, who asked to only use her first name, has barely been able to leave her kitchen.

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Every evening, she prepares 30-40 food tiffins before her husband goes out to deliver them to Covid-19 patients quarantining alone at home, mostly students. She said this gives her some solace at a time when she feels mostly helpless.

“This is the least we can do at the moment for people who are fighting the virus and also keeping others safe by staying at home,” the 32-year-old South Delhi resident said.

She added that when the government fails to deliver, it becomes the duty of people to help each other.

“We cannot give up. We have to be strong even though the situation is very grim.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.