Over a year ago, when India first locked down in response to the pandemic, I got in touch with a friend who lived on his own. The “strangest of times” we called them then, often we said “unprecedented”. As I asked him about how he was coping, he slowly revealed to me that he had begun to rely increasingly on a childhood toy, a teddy bear that had been with him for nearly three decades. It had moved with him from home to home, placed on a shelf or at the back of a cupboard, like any memento. But now he had begun to have conversations with it. In the absence of any other constant presence, it brought him a measure of comfort. He could endow it with a personality, make of it a patient, kindly creature who would share that small, boxed in life.
I was surprised at his honest revelations but did not make too much of them. It seemed like a harmless coping mechanism, drawing on a bit of fantasy and imagination. We were all trying to get by in different ways. To think back now to that time, when many had already suffered great trauma while we were abstractly fretting about the future, is to recall a time that was “better”. Most of us had no clue of what was to come in India’s apocalyptic second wave of coronavirus: the surge in deaths, the quests for oxygen, the queues for crematoriums, the tidal wave of fear, rage and grief.
Where there has been a near total abdication of government responsibility in so many parts of the country, civil society has stepped into the breach. People organise, enter data into Google documents, make calls, share links, send money and food. The large numbers of people with no access to digital resources rush from one hospital to another, their sick relative in the back of a private ambulance, car or rickshaw. Caregivers increasingly are responsible for hauling heavy oxygen cylinders around cities, looking for a place to have them refilled, while navigating black marketeers and fraudsters. But of course millions around the country will not have the wherewithal even to attempt these critical measures.
Many groups on the ground have used online networks with remarkable resourcefulness and tenacity to provide essential supplies and medical assistance. The rest of us are doing what we can but we are not trained in the intricacies of dealing with an enormous public health emergency. We simply look to other better-informed civilians and try our best to imitate their actions. We cobble together unwieldy resources. We work our way down long lists of phone numbers as news comes in about a cousin’s wife, an ex-colleague’s brother, desperate strangers online. We sometimes end up duplicating each other’s work or passing on tips and leads that we don’t know are already useless. The hospital bed has gone. The oxygen refilling company has turned out to be fake. Occasionally a request is successfully met and there is a surge of relief and a sense of fulfilment. But then we question whether there can be any pride in something that flows from such an egregious failure of the state to discharge its most basic functions.
The tenor of almost every conversation has changed. When we call friends, we ask about who is unwell and discuss their current pulse oximeter readings. We share information on the kind of oxygen concentrator we should buy, rent or borrow for home use, its flow rate, weight and voltage, in the way that we might once have sought recommendations for laptops or printers. We have become familiar with new verb forms, like “proning”, the act of safely turning a patient over to lie on their stomach, a process thought to improve oxygenation. We remind others to make sure that their next-of-kin details are up to date on their bank nomination records. And even during this calamity, our awareness of our looming deadlines, unanswered emails and abandoned tasks – the full texture of our work lives – thrums in the background. As we dial yet another helpline number and get a busy tone, we know that for the duration of our futile efforts, a person continues to struggle to breathe.
We’ve probably all at some point spluttered and choked when a morsel of food has gone down the wrong way, perhaps felt winded after climbing a steep hill. I can remember only one time truly and terrifyingly being unable to breathe. Late at night after an allergic reaction, my throat seemed to seize up and a great weight appeared to settle on my chest. My inhalation became increasingly manic. But each breath was redundant, leading only to a lungful of nothing. It was as though someone had removed all the air in the room and placed it somewhere far out of reach. The physical reaction was layered with a rising sense of panic and disbelief. This was not supposed to happen and yet it was. After some interminable moments, the reaction dissipated. But the memory remains. And for thousands of people up and down the country it is their current reality.
The last fortnight has transformed every aspect of the texture of daily life across the country. A Delhi journalist was surprised to discover that ash from a crematorium has been drifting across and staining clothes she had hung out to dry. In Rajkot, Gujarat, obituaries have made up a third of the pages of a local newspaper. On my street in Bangalore, an ambulance pulls up every so often outside one of the apartment blocks: faces appear at windows to see who it’s for and shortly afterwards neighbourhood WhatsApp groups light up with enquiries. When finally there is a lull in the requests for help, we take some time to write the day’s condolence notes. And through all this we know that we are the most fortunate ones, unlike the doctor who has to tell terrified patients on a ward that there is no oxygen left, the crematorium worker who has had to try to numb all feeling in order to keep up with the pace of work, the caregiver who has to cope alone with several sick family members all under one roof, the patient gasping for air in a village with no hospital.
We are in the fourth week of this calamity and there seems to be no end in sight. We are asking ourselves: is this simply how we live now? Is this how we die? A year ago, I discovered an isolated friend was relying on a childhood toy to get him through those early pandemic days. It is impossible to know what coping mechanism will sustain the people of a country in the days to come in the face of such extinguishment. For now, some of us breathe.