On May 18, 26-year-old Vijay Prasad returned home to Bihar’s Gopalganj from Surat where he worked at a textile factory.

The journey back home was not easy, but it had to be done – the factory had shut and there was neither enough food nor money.

First, Vijay Prasad hitched a ride in an empty truck till Varanasi. From there, he walked to the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border, according to his brother Murari Prasad. Thereafter, he hailed a bus that the Bihar government had stationed to ferry residents from the state who were walking back home.

On reaching Gopalganj, he was lodged in a government school that had been converted into a quarantine centre.

On May 30, Vijay Prasad died.

‘Unease and restlessness’

The previous evening, Vijay Prasad had called Murari Prasad complaining of a fever and a “feeling of unease and restlessness”. “Bhai, please get me some medicines,” Murari Prasad recalled his brother saying.

Murari Prasad arrived at the centre soon after to find his brother’s face swollen. He handed over some paracetamol through the window, the same way he had supplied food to his brother on two previous occasions. In fact, he had brought food for his brother earlier that morning too. He seemed to be feeling just fine then, according to Murari Prasad.

When he apprised the police official on duty of his brother’s condition, he was told not to worry. The doctor had already examined him, the policeman supposedly said – the swelling was a result of his nose being poked when his swab sample was collected.

Murari Prasad went home and received another update from his brother: “They have shifted me to a new room where there are just two other people.” The original room where he was put up had around eight people.

That was the last Murari Prasad heard from his brother. The next morning, he received a call from a district official, asking him to come to the quarantine centre urgently. His brother was sick, the official said.

He was, in fact, dead.

Vijay Prasad

Survived long hard journeys, but not quarantine

On April 29, more than a month after announcing a lockdown at a mere four hours’ notice, the Centre finally allowed movement of stranded workers. But with government-run trains and buses too few to ferry everyone back home, thousands of people, hungry, broke and desperate to reach the safety of their villages, were forced to make perilous journeys spanning hundreds of kilometres on foot, in overloaded trucks, and even in cement mixers. Scores of people have died on their way home.

But before they could really be home, many of these people had to spend 14 days at isolation facilities, usually crumbling government school buildings. This is to ensure that they do not inadvertently infect others in the local community. But the quarantine centres themselves seem to be witnessing several deaths. Many who survived the arduous journeys back home are struggling to make it through their isolation periods alive.

Allegations of negligence

Relatives of those who have died claim this is because access to medical care in these quarantine centres is either late or inadequate. “My brother died because he did not receive treatment,” alleged Murari Prasad.

The Gopalganj district administration refuted allegations of negligence. “Doctors go to the quarantine centre every day,” said the district civil surgeon, Tribhuvan Narayan Singh. “He did not complain of any discomfort to them.”

Singh said Vijay Prasad complained of a stomach ache in the morning of May 30. “He was taken to a hospital where he died an hour later of a heart attack,” he said. “The stomach pain was caused by ulcers which had burst and the person suffered a heart attack because of that shock.”

The post mortem report, accessed by Scroll.in, stated the same: it attributed Vijay Prasad’s death to an “acute myocardial infarction due to thromboembolism and peptic ulcer perforation”.

His family does not buy it, though. “First of all, he did not have a stomach ache – I met him the previous evening,” said Murari Prasad. “And if he had not complained to doctors about not feeling well, why was he shifted to a different room?”

“This whole story,” he insisted, “has been cooked up by the administration to cover up my brother’s death.”

A family of migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh walk out of Navi Mumbai. Credit: PTI

Same story, different places

In neighbouring Jharkhand’s Palamu, Mithilesh Singh had similar complaints about the local administration. His 22-year-old nephew Sikander Singh, who used to work at an iron bar manufacturing unit in Maharashtra’s Palghar, had returned to Palamu on May 21.

Subsequently, he had been made to stay at a school that had been converted into a quarantine centre.

Four days later on May 25, Sikander Singh collapsed and died within an hour. He had developed a fever the day before for which he had been given some medicines, said Mithilesh Singh. “The way they treated him, there was carelessness,” he alleged. “He must have been sick from before – but he did not receive any treatment till the last moment.”

Yet again, district officials refuted allegations of any lapses in treatment. “After he developed symptoms, he was shifted within half an hour to a higher medical facility,” said Palamu district commissioner Santanu Kumar Agrahari.

Sikander Singh died en route to the hospital. “Just because of high blood pressure and other complications he died,” said Agrahari. “His Covid test was negative.”

Singh’s family, however, insisted that he had no other comorbid conditions. How does a 22-year-old suddenly die like that, they asked. “We have not even received the post-mortem report yet,” said Mithilesh Singh.

Agrahari said the exact cause of death would only be ascertained through a “tissue examination”. “We have preserved the viscera for forensic examination,” said Agrahari.

Despite denials by officials, quick access to medical care for those in quarantine centres seems to be a problem across states.

Sikander Singh.

A stillborn child

On May 16, when Yashoda experienced labour pains at a quarantine centre in Chhattisgarh’s Kabirdham, it took nearly an hour for the ambulance to arrive, according to her husband Khubiram Ratre.

Yashoda and Ratre, construction labourers, had arrived in the centre a week earlier from Secunderabad on a truck after their landlord had said he would not allow a child to be born in his premises.

The ambulance ferried Yashoda to the nearest primary health centre; Ratre was allowed to accompany her.

But Yashoda developed complications there and doctors at the primary health centre failed to carry out the delivery. Several hours after they arrived there, Ratre was told that Yashoda would have to be shifted to the district hospital in Kawardha, Kabirdham’s headquarters.

It was close to midnight by the time they finally reached the district hospital, a drive of around an hour from the primary health centre.

Dr BL Raj, the block medical officer of Pandariya where the primary health centre is located, said the delay was a result of the district hospital refusing to accept patients from quarantine centres. “The duty doctor had referred her to the district hospital, but they were reluctant to accept quarantined patients,” he said. “Finally, they accepted after I called.”

At the district hospital, a caesarean procedure was conducted, but the infant did not survive. “Initially the sisters told me the baby’s heartbeat was weak, but it turned out he was already dead,” said Ratre.

These are not isolated accounts. Scouting the local news throws up scores of similar tales of people dying across quarantine centres in India – deaths not directly caused by the virus, but perhaps part of the pandemic’s mounting toll nonetheless.

A family of migrant workers in Allahabad. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

Deaths galore across the country

In Palamu itself, for instance, a day after Sikander Singh’s death, Tayeb Ali, a migrant worker who had returned from Ghaziabad, suddenly collapsed at a quarantine centre as he was waiting to be screened for symptoms. He died soon after.

Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the day Yashoda delivered a still born, a 31-year old man who had walked all the way from Pune died in a quarantine centre in Mungeli where a snake reportedly bit him.

According to media reports at least 10 people across the state have died while being isolated in quarantine centres. The number seems to be only increasing by the day.

There have been quarantine deaths reported from Odisha and Uttarakhand too.

In Bihar, too, Vijay Prasad may not have been the only one to die under what families insist were mysterious circumstances. According to news reports, relatives of a person who died with fever-like symptoms on May 24 in a quarantine centre in Bhagalpur have accused the local administration of a cover-up. A letter in which the mother of the deceased has accused the authorities of throwing the body into the Ganges river has also surfaced on social media.

Bhagalpur civil surgeon Bijay Kumar Singh, however, said the body was cremated following standard protocol. He also denied having received any complaint from the family. Singh dodged queries on whether a post-mortem was done.

In Gopalganj, though, Murari Prasad said he would not rest till he got satisfactory answers about his brother’s death. “There was not one policeman who would help load my brother’s dead body in the vehicle,” he said. “If I don’t ask questions today, it can happen to anyone tomorrow.”