We often tell ourselves that the tiny coronavirus that has taken the entire planet into its thrall is agnostic to class, caste, race and gender. It is for this reason that the shibboleth is frequently repeated that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Yet, during the first wave of its depredations in India, the historic walls of class and caste seemed robustly un-breached. The rich and middle-class Indians felt secure – as they do through every trial and calamity – that their money, their social power and networks and their government would protect them. They did not see, and did not care about the distress of the working poor.

Their faith in the government seemed well-founded. They felt protected by the strict lockdown, the requirement of working from home, keeping radical distance from everyone outside the household, and ensuring radical sanitation.

It did not occur to them, it did not indeed matter, that the state’s policies even in principle offered safety only to those who had homes that were large enough to allow people to stay indoors and keep a safe distance, had running water, had secure jobs, savings and social security.

Banging thalis

I wonder how many among them even were mindful of the harsh existential reality of the working poor in India. That around 60% of all families in the country lived in one room or less, therefore distancing was impossible for them. Or that nine out of ten workers were informal, with no social security and job protections, therefore “working from home” meant being jobless and starving at home.

None of this troubled the rich and middle classes, who publicly applauded the policies that seemed designed to offer them protection – banging thalis and lighting candles, when called upon to do so – indifferent to the explosion of suffering that these very policies unleashed on the “lower depths” of the social order.

Visibly the lockdown – not the coronavirus – proved calamitous at this stage only to the labouring poor and destitute, who were thrown overnight into mass hunger, joblessness and painful migration.

Millions – some estimates put the figure at a mind-boggling 30 million women, men and children – flooded the country’s highways and village roads, enduring police batons, hunger, thirst, the dread of infection, and the hot overhead summer sun to walk hundreds of kilometres to the only place that they could call home.

The middle-classes watched the unending exodus of humanity from the balconies of their homes or on their television screens, bewildered at their numbers and predicament, but mostly indifferent, walled away from their agony. Almost none of them made a single demand from the government that could have prevented a great part of this suffering: when the rich and middle-class formal workers were ensured salary payments while they worked from home, the only fair state action would have been to pay at least statutory minimum wages to every household outside formal employment in the country.

In a petition filed by me and others concerned with the unfolding tragedy making this demand in the Supreme Court of India, the chief justice retorted, “The government assures us that every household is being supplied food. Then why do they need money transfers?”

Risking charges of contempt of court, I felt spurred to tell the learned judge, more senior than any in the country, that first it was a terrible lie that governments were ensuring sufficient food to all people in the country. My colleagues and I, who were trying desperately to supply food to as many people as we could, were daily witnesses to levels of mass hunger that I have not seen in my lifetime.

And even if it was, I wanted to say to the judge, “I undertake to ensure that you get excellent cooked food delivered to your home daily. Then, by the same yardstick that you used for the poor, you too should willingly forego your salary.”But the second Covid-19 wave was entirely different.

The broken health system

It rowdily breached and completely overturned these settled protections and privileges of the social order. Nikhil Pandhi, a doctoral candidate, wrote evocatively for The Wire Science of how the second wave “visibly vanquish(ed) even India’s middle and upper-middle classes and castes whose distinct struggles for ventilators, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and vaccines reveal the cracked landscape of tertiary health systems in the country”.

People who long felt secure in the protection of privilege “are now finding their worst nightmares coming true”, Pandhi wrote. “Individual privileges that entitled them to health in life (indeed, even dignity in death) are being hollowed-out in the pandemic by dramatic experiences of suffering…”

What is more, he wrote, India’s privileged classes and castes for the first time experienced an “as-if untouchability”.

 “The uncremated corpse [is] lying in wait for a pyre bundled in body-bags and concealed from the fear of contamination…The virulent dead having to be disposed of from a distance as if they were ‘untouchable’…”   

Tsunami of cases

Most of us in the middle classes in India experienced the months of the summer of 2021, when the second wave was unleashed on India, as a dystopic nightmare from which wakening was as frightening as sleep. Each day we were terrified to check our phone messages, because someone we knew, cared for, loved, respected was bereaved or had died. It was a professor one day, an activist the next, a doctor the third, a father, a grandmother, a spouse, a lover, a co-worker, a friend, a daughter, a son.

I do not know a single family or workplace that was not stricken with sickness and death. Our efforts at relief became almost inconsequential. We tried to test, isolate, treat and offer rest to our homeless sisters and brothers and offer food to as many as we could.

At work, my colleagues in the Karwan e Mohabbat (who had come together to fight hate violence and lynching that had grown into an epidemic before covid felled us, and who struggled during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic to reach food, health-care and transportation to as many as we could) could this time muster only eight oxygen concentrators that we tried to juggle from home to home as desperate calls kept ringing on our phones.

We converted our offices into isolation centres for colleagues who were infected and did not have homes large enough for isolation. We tried to get PPEs to funeral workers. But all of this was not even one lamp in the midst of the raging malevolent tempest of the second wave. And the state was almost entirely absent.

Journalist Vikas Pandey of the BBC spoke wrenchingly of his own dilemmas, not as a reporter but as a caring human being amidst the “tsunami” of the Covid-19 crisis. His voice could have been of so many of us:

“Every morning starts with frantic calls from friends, family and colleagues asking for a bed, oxygen cylinders or medicines. The number of people I am able to help is reducing every day as the doctors and officials who could earlier help are no longer available to speak on the phone. Helplines are not working and the vendors who could earlier help have run out of supplies. I go to bed with a sense of defeat every night, but then pick myself up and start in the morning again as more and more people call for help. I can understand their helplessness as I lost a cousin a few days ago in a top hospital in the city. He waited for 18 hours to get a ventilator but the hospital didn’t have any. His last message to us was ‘please save me’. But we couldn’t.”   

Eighty-three-year-old Triyambak Tapas wrote for the Times of India a moving testimony about his wife who tested Covid-19 positive and died a frighteningly lonely death. He recalls how he rushed his wife to a well-known hospital in Bengaluru, when she developed high fever. A nurse came up to the car and tested her oxygen level, and found these extremely low. “We were told that all ICU beds with ventilator(s) were full.”

They rushed her to another well-known hospital five minutes’ drive away. “The same thing repeated. All the beds were full.” He recalls poignantly, “Parked right in front of the emergency ward my wife was sinking slowly.”

Pleading that she was almost dead, the hospital authorities took pity, and agreed to take her into the emergency room and give her emergency oxygen until they found her a bed in another hospital.

They continued innumerable phone calls to find a hospital bed, and in the end succeeded in securing the promise of a bed with a ventilator in a hospital. Once she was in hospital, they lost contact with her. That night she died, and they could only see her face for a fleeting minute when they briefly unzipped the body bag to show her face. No rites were permitted as her body was cremated.

Bodies piling up

Sometimes – perhaps too rarely – there was rage. In Delhi, Shivangi lost her grandfather. “I do not know if the government is sleeping or what they are doing,” she told the BBC. “I am totally disheartened at the situation I am seeing. The government is a literal failure. A person cannot live here in Delhi. A person even cannot die peacefully in Delhi.”

Puja, who runs a small boutique in her home in Delhi, was equally distraught. “There are bodies piling everywhere,” she told The Diplomat. “Everyone I know is infected, including my daughter and me. How did we get here?”

Her business had collapsed after the lockdown, and no government aid reached her. She had tumours in her abdomen, but no hospital could give her a bed because of the second wave. “Modi ne akhirkar India ko sadak pe utar hi diya [After all, Modi has thrown India to the streets].”

A health worker prepares to unload the bodies of men who died from the coronavirus disease for burial in Delhi. Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui/ AFP

But most often this fury was doused and drowned in just helpless, desperate sadness. Pradeep Sharma was inconsolable as he spoke to journalists of The Diplomat.

His 46-year-old brother tested positive for Covid-19 at Deendayal Hospital in West Delhi. However, the hospital had hopelessly run out of beds, so he rushed his brother to another private hospital, the Vimhans Nayati Super Speciality Hospital in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. But they too turned them down. “There are no hospital beds,” he lamented. “I do not know what to do.” He covered his eyes with both hands and cried.

He bought six vials of Remdesivir from the black market, but when he arrived at the hospital with the medicine, he was dead. “I could not find my brother’s mortal remains, but the hospital had hired bouncers who pushed me around,” he told The Diplomat.

When he located his brother finally, there were bodies lying around on top of one another, and he had to step on other dead bodies to get to him. The crematorium had run out of wood, and they collected weeds and grass to cremate him. His father died three days later, and they had to keep the body at home for two days as there was no place in the mortuary and the crematorium.

Scramble for beds

Another unfortunate family in Ghaziabad lost four members of the family to Covid-19 in rapid succession, leaving two girls no older than six and eight years orphaned, India Today reported. It began with a retired school teacher Durgesh Prasad testing positive. He stayed isolated at home, but soon all the adults in the joint family tested positive. One by one each of them died, first his son, then his wife and finally his daughter-in-law.

There were young people studying and working overseas, racked with worry. Nine members of the family of Ansh Sachdeva, a student in Boston, had caught the contagion in Delhi. The 23-year-old told BBC: “Every time I call, someone we know has died of it.”

By the time he could return to India, his grandfather had died. He could not see him one last time or even attend his funeral. And his other grandfather was battling long covid. “I feel so helpless. It is so scary,” he told reporters.

Ashwin Mittal, a young man in Delhi, tested positive for coronavirus, the BBC said. But, desperate to find a hospital bed with oxygen for his grandmother who was gasping for breath, with his fever and aching body he drove with her for many hours from hospital to hospital, but there were no beds.

Finally, one hospital in north Delhi took pity on him and took her into the emergency room as he looked for an ICU bed elsewhere. But ICU beds were even harder to find than general covid hospital beds, and Mittal kept pleading that the hospital keep her in their emergency ward for longer and longer. But the hospital said they would have to discharge her, as they too were running out of oxygen. He knew then that only a miracle could save his grandmother.

Wrenching stories of preventable deaths due to shortage of beds and oxygen poured in from every corner of the country. In Robertsgunj, a district town in Jharkhand, 58-year-old Rajeshwari Devi lay for 36 hours in a hospital emergency ward on oxygen support. Until her positive Covid-19 report came, the hospital refused to admit her. They then said that they had run dangerously short of oxygen and that the family must move her to a bigger hospital. But there was no ambulance and no assurance of a bed.

A politician at last found them a bed, but by the time she reached there, she died. Doctors were close to despair and breaking point, saying it is hard for them to see when this would end when they could return to find time for their families and for rest again when indeed they would “see the light at the end of the tunnel this time”.

A relative of Covid-19 patient waits to get a refill of the cylinder with medical oxygen in New Delhi, during the second wave of infections in India. Photo credit: PTI

Desperation for oxygen

Three families, complete strangers until that moment, crouched clustered around a single oxygen cylinder in the corridors of Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Delhi, the BBC reported. Three patients were taking turns to share a single oxygen cylinder.

One of these was Parvati, 75 years old. Her son Ram Kumar had his story of frantically searching for a hospital bed for his mother, being turned away from three hospitals and ending up finally at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, which gave them no bed, only a stretcher and an oxygen cylinder.

The second was 65-year-old Om Dutt from Ghaziabad. His son had died just a day earlier, because there were no beds.Again, the family searched vainly for a hospital bed, and finally returned to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. Here, they arranged for an oxygen cylinder, but he died after half an hour. And in less than 24 hours, they were back at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, at the end of making the same round of hospitals, after the dead man’s father’s health also rapidly slid.

They borrowed a friend’s car, made the rounds of many hospitals, and finally returned to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. “We did not want to come back here, but we had no choice,” his grandson said.

The third patient sharing the cylinder was a shopkeeper, Deepak, 40 years, who again arrived at the hospital corridors after scouring the city for a hospital bed.

The lone oxygen cylinder had been given by the hospital to the patient Parvati. But her son Deepak Kumar said, “In the corridors of the hospital we saw these other two families also desperate for oxygen. How could we turn them away?”

A rare gesture

This gesture of solidarity was as special as it was rare. I have often been wrenched and shamed as I witness how uncaring the Indian middle-classes have become, how bereft of compassion they are to the suffering and want of people of poverty and social disadvantage. I believed that this was because they had, as a class, opted out into a stratosphere of class-protected security. In their gated colonies, expensive schools and private hospitals, shielded from the want of health-care, education, and security themselves, they did not care what the unwashed masses endured.

But during the second wave, for the first time in living memory the middle-classes experienced the horrors of helpless dread and death, situations when neither money or networks could save them. For those months, they had stepped briefly into the shoes of the poor. I had hoped that this experience of powerless loss at last would foster some empathy, and therefore, solidarity with the working poor.

Maybe at last they would join their voice and social and political power to the demand for better public services, at least free assured quality health care for all.

However, the horror passed as quickly as it came, and it took no time for the rich and middle-classes to return to the silos of their customary indifference.

Read the other parts of the “Tsunami of suffering” series here.

The author is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow, Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies and convenes the Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign to fight hate crime with solidarity and atonement.