Young fans hold a poster of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan while a Hindu priest (unseen) performs special rituals and prayers for his recovery as he tested positive for Covid-19, at a Hindu temple in Kolkata on July 12. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
India's handling of the coronavirus crisis is scandalous in more ways than one. So are the woes of the common people, Covid-19 patients and their relatives.
The premier All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) based in Delhi recently mixed up two bodies — sending the body of a Muslim woman to a Hindu family and vice versa.
As the blunder sparked an uproar, AIIMS has sacked one staff at the mortuary and suspended another.
In Hyderabad, the family of a nurse had to run from pillar to post to find a burial space after she succumbed due to the contagion.
Scores of others in cities like Mumbai and national capital New Delhi could not ensure the dignity that is reserved for a deceased person.
Congress leader and former Law Minister Ashwini Kumar wrote a letter to the Chief Justice in June that the right to die with dignity is a "fundamental right" for citizens in the world's largest democracy and that should also cover the right to a decent burial and cremation.
He referred to a number of cases in which patients were ill-treated during their last days and once they breathed their last, family members were subjected all kinds of indignity, bureaucratic hassles and were compelled to run from one end of the city to the other either to get bodies or permission to perform the last rites of their nearest and dearest.
According to social worker Maring George, the situation is even worse if the victims are Muslims or tribal people from Northeast with Mongoloid features.
"How much the Chinese are responsible for Covid-19 is yet to be established but just because some of us look like them with Mongoloid faces and small eyes, our people are facing the worst kind of discrimination," said George, who was tending to patients and their relatives from the Northeast in a Delhi hospital.
Similar to these cases, he cited the instance of a major goof-up in Thane near Mumbai where the body of a 73-year-old coronavirus victim was handed over to another family whose patient was ironically treated for coronavirus in the newly set up Global Hub Corona Hospital in Thane.
Another relative of a Muslim victim of Covid-19 in Delhi blamed both the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the city government run by the Aam Aadmi Party led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
"The common people are the worst victims in the present set up. At one point we presumed the government neglected the poor and planned nothing for migrant workers during the lockdown. But it seems the authorities did not do anything in general for Covid-19 patients and their relatives," complained Afroz Ali.
Ali lost his uncle to the virus last month and faced many obstacles getting the body and permission for last rites. "Thankfully, someone in our family knew a politician and thus we could get things done. Delhi remains an indifferent city as it is always regardless of Covid-19," he says.
Many have provided video footage and displayed their anguish on social network.
"Delhi is a city of discrimination and indifference. We have seen videos from Delhi government-run LNJP hospital and also from the federal government-run hospitals, the scenario is the same," says Congress leader Randeep Surjewala.
Social workers and Congress leaders have also said that quite a few Covid-19 patients admitted to hospitals have also gone missing. Worse still, often the bodies could not be accounted for and sometimes videos go viral showing bodies lying on hospital floors.
Both in Delhi and Mumbai and cities like Kolkata and Hyderabad, it has been reported that grieving families have had to wait for hours in long queues in hospitals and later outside crematoriums. In some cases, they are also asked to return later.
"There is an essential cultural problem vis-a-vis religious rites. For Hindus once a soul is gone, the body needs to be disposed of respectfully by family members. But for those who are losing their near and dear ones, now that last journey is a nightmare," complained Shirish Kumar, who lost his father to the contagion and what he terms the "gross failure and negligence" of the health system.
In Mumbai, the wait to dispose off bodies has been pretty long, say social workers and relatives of ill-fated patients.
On average eight to 10 bodies wait outside Shivaji Park electric crematorium, considered a good facility in Mumbai with two furnaces. The problem here is the authorities allow the disposal of only 20-24 bodies a day, 10-12 per furnace. But the number of dead bodies in the city has been always more.
There have been reports of about 70 deaths in Mumbai on July 9 evening. However, officials seem to draw satisfaction in the numbers. The fatality rate in Mumbai stood at 4.19 percent on July 9 with a recovery rate of 55 percent, they say.
Similarly in capital Delhi, the situation looks grim.
Delhi on July 9 recorded 2,187 fresh coronavirus cases with 3,258 deaths. But the recovery rate of Covid-19 patients living in home isolation in the capital has also increased, reports say.
On July 12, India reported the highest single-day spike of 28,600 with 23,174 deaths
It is not that authorities who can make all the difference are not seized of the matter. Last month during a hearing in the Supreme Court, the bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan remarked: “Covid-19 patients are treated worse than animals. In one case, a dead body was found in garbage."
But has something substantial moved since then is the question.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has hinted that the "real reasons" for casualties of Covid-19 patients ought to be found at the earliest.
The first Covid-19 death was reported in Delhi on March 14 – long before the national lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Modi. But within a month, the total number of fatalities in Delhi had increased to 1,000.
The figures jumped to 2,000 in next eight days and the total death toll stood at 2,035 on June 19. By July 8, the death toll due to the pandemic in Delhi was 3,165.
Are some of these deaths happening due to negligence and indifference at hospitals?
As of now, officials are tight lipped and thus a proper examination of the factors those led to deaths in Delhi has been ordered.
In July alone Delhi has seen 397 people succumbing to Covid-19 and there were over 800 coronavirus fatalities within the last fortnight.