A Delhi resident’s heart-rending account: “The system has collapsed”

By Cherry Malik
Photo by Firos nv on Unsplash

Call it a tsunami, a storm, whatever you will. It’s a disaster which hit Delhi with such ferocity that it spared no one. And it was in plain sight, in full view for everyone to see. We ignored it and like a forest fire with tailwinds, it engulfed the entire valley.

The WhatsApp messages started beeping again in late March after a lull for months. First came the recommended ‘spice mixtures’ to consume to boost ‘immunity’. I always roll my eyes at such forwards and wonder who are the people who believe that consuming pepper, cloves and turmeric can immunise you against a virus which broke the human immunity barrier causing everyone to shake their heads in disbelief and making everyone acutely aware of their frailty.

I rolled my eyes yet again, but with a worry. Covid cases had been rising—fast, exponentially—in Delhi, yet no one was talking about it. No one was preparing for it. No one was expecting it to become what it did.

Then came the news of someone you knew, here and there, falling ill with COVID-19. What followed in the blink of an eye were desperate appeals for plasma donations, hapless queries about which testing labs are available for testing, which ambulances are available at short notice, which pharmacies are still selling required equipment and medicines.

The worst came when the city ran out of oxygen. By then there weren’t enough resources left for India’s capital of about 20 million people, living cheek by jowl, with such honed tenacity and instinct for survival that being a ‘Delhiite’ is street cred for being wily and resourceful.

They failed. There just weren’t enough medicines, oxygen, hospital beds, medical assistance, ambulances, testing kits, to save everyone. The city has even run out of space to cremate the dead. The images of the helpless, sick, needy and the dead is the gravest moment of pathos this city has ever seen.

There are so many questions which one needs to ask and should ask, but who is going to answer them? Why did no one ever care why there was a dip in cases over the winter? Why did it blow up in March? What was the cause of the rapid resurgence? What happened to all the oxygen plants for which tenders were floated last year? Where are the vaccines? In a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, why are there still only two vaccines approved for emergency use? Why did Pfizer take back their application for emergency use last year? Why did we not pay any heed to super spreader events? Why is oxygen being transported in a train and not airplanes?

The system has collapsed. There are humanitarian groups arranging medicines and oxygen for the sick. There are student bodies converting empty space into COVID-19 facilities, setting up social media helplines to fact check the information being circulated online. There are resident welfare associations (RWAs) helping procure necessary equipment for the patients.

This is also a city where lab technicians are sending false reports, where doctors are selling medicines in short supply at exorbitant rates in the black market, where ambulances are charging five times the rate, where people are hoarding oxygen cylinders.

We can’t just blame the system and wash our hands off it—we are a part of this system, we helped propagate this system for decades. We have never shied away from asking for favours out of turn when it suited our purpose. We have always been rather pleased about ‘who we know’, to get ahead in life. We have held no one accountable for the lack of expenditure on healthcare, lack of infrastructure, lack of awareness, preparedness in case of a disaster.

Somehow, most of us, who can afford it, believed that in case of a crisis, private medical care would take care of us—we would pay for it, easy, or call someone we know, and we would be well taken care of. This is the first time that I have seen the system of ‘jugaad’ fail in India. The disease and the system no longer care who you are, and who you know.

My uncle has repeatedly told me that India is chaos. If one wants to survive here, one has to be a part of this chaos and learn to work it. He is wrong. If we are to survive, we have to put this chaos in order, we have to start with ourselves and refuse to be a part of the system which doesn’t cater to the neediest of its people. Otherwise, we will witness this devastation again.

The sky above India used to be blue. Now, the sky is orange. Please, let there be rain.

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