As Covid-19 deaths spike, families from across Delhi have been bringing their relatives here, the Ghazipur cremation ground. According to official statistics, every three days more than 10,000 people in India die in hospitals, streets, and homes from the coronavirus—though the actual numbers are surely much higher. But people aren’t dying just because of Covid-19. The government’s stubbornness and lack of empathy share the blame.
When you approach one of Delhi’s cremation grounds, the smoke reddens your eyes, which start to itch and hurt after only a few minutes. I wore double masks and sunglasses. (I’d been infected with Covid-19 once—and don’t want to get it again.) Even with such protection, the stench of burning flesh seeps into your nose as the bodies around you turn to ashes and disperse into the hazardous air. Relatives can’t stand to stay for long, while the workers have been there almost nonstop. Death has consumed the parking lot, too. During one visit, I counted 35 bodies cremated on Ghazipur’s concrete lot before noon.
When I arrived, I watched a family fill out registration documents and deposit $42 for the cremation. The body, wrapped in a white plastic bag, lay nearby in a small ambulance. The cremation volunteers and helpers around them were scrambling to move corpses, keep order, and make room for the next body. Most families waited just outside the compound near idols of the Hindu gods until there was space inside to burn their relatives.
Wearing a yellow kurta and a cloth mask, Ram Karan Mishra, a 30-year-old Hindu priest, washed his hands in a sink. Mishra told me that since the previous evening, people had brought 70 bodies for cremation. “I’m here day and night,” he said. “Last night, I cremated two bodies. This is unstoppable here for over two weeks now. The government is showing wrong figures of deaths. So many bodies are brought here, and one doesn’t know how many are cremated or buried in other areas.”
Mishra’s eyes ached, and the heat was dehydrating him. He took a water break on the road outside, and when he took off his mask, I could see soot dividing lines where his face was protected. His eyelashes and eyebrows remained thick with the ashes of the dead.
In the last few weeks, crematoria across India have been overwhelmed. In many cities and towns, people are burning corpses on footpaths and vacant grounds. In one Indian city, nearly a dozen corpses have been discovered floating down the Yamuna River.
Anger at the government is building. People want answers but find none. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always believed in telling the public what to think—rather than listening to people’s woes.
After India was hit by the virus in March last year, Modi called for a nationwide lockdown. Without giving people, especially migrant workers, the time to settle somewhere, he quickly shut down markets, public transport, malls, businesses, flights, and trains. Thousands of migrant workers had to walk hundreds of miles through the countryside to go home. Hundreds of them died on their way. And the restrictions made it impossible for many to find work. According to a report by Azim Premji University, about 100 million people lost jobs during the lockdown that lasted until May.
And Modi’s response to such hardship? He called on people to bang utensils and light candles. Some of his party’s leaders offered even worse solutions such as drinking cow urine and showering in cow dung.
Still, by the end of 2020, Covid-19 rates were relatively low, and the Modi government declared victory over the pandemic and fully reopened the country. Just a month before the second wave hit the country, Modi boasted, “At the beginning of this pandemic, the whole world was worried about India’s situation. But today India’s fight against corona is inspiring the entire world.” Given what Modi was saying, it’s no surprise that people relaxed their protective measures. Scientists, however, were already predicting a second wave. Modi ignored it and went on talking.
Modi also announced that the elections in five states would go forward. More than 188 million people were set to cast votes, and Modi himself spoke at mass public rallies in West Bengal. On April 17, Modi bragged to a crowd, “I have never seen such a gathering.… you have shown such strength. Wherever my eyes go, I can only see people, nothing else. You have done great.”
While Modi was on his West Bengal campaign tour, a state chief minister said he couldn’t reach the prime minister to discuss the shortage of oxygen and antiviral drugs. On that same day, the country recorded 260,000 new Covid-19 cases and 1,472 deaths, again likely a fraction of the real numbers.
If all this was not enough, the country’s largest Hindu festival, Kumbh Mela, was organized in the North Indian city of Haridwar. Since January, at least 9 million Hindu devotees have attended the festival. The elections and the months-long festival were super-spreader events that Modi could have canceled and likely saved countless lives. Since he came to power in 2014, Modi has aimed to portray himself as uniquely able to bring national growth and power. But with bodies piling up and lines at parking-lot crematoria, it’s clear his government has catastrophically failed.
As the United States rapidly vaccinates its residents, India has been unable to follow suit. Initially, the government had ordered only 21 million vaccines from the Serum Institute of India, which is manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine. The vaccination campaign has moved slowly. So far, India has given a first dose to 157 million people, or about 12 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people. Only 2 percent of people in India are fully vaccinated. In March, as the second wave began to hit, the government ordered an additional 110 million doses of AstraZeneca, known locally as Covishield.
On April 21, Modi appeared on news stations, and said India had improved and “fought the Covid fight.” He tried to put the responsibility on the youth, asking them “to make small committees to ensure Covid guidelines are followed.” And, since no lockdown will be imposed, Modi told states to request migrant laborers not return home.
He announced no plan.
At night in Delhi, the wail of ambulances is nearly constant. On the city’s roads, police have set up barricades to create a separate lane for emergency vehicles. On a recent evening, at the gate of the city’s Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital, the guards stopped an ambulance. “You can’t go inside. There are no beds available,” he told the family of a patient on oxygen support. The guard turned them away, even though the oxygen was running low.
Inside the hospital’s compound, an old man also on oxygen waited in an ambulance, while his two sons pleaded with hospital officials for a bed. “We receive many calls throughout the day from people,” Gopal Bharva, a paramedic, told me. “We have to wait if this patient gets a bed. If not then, we have to look at another hospital.” I circled back an hour later, and the two brothers were still begging for help for their father.
In the last few weeks, Indian social media has been filled with videos showing people weeping along roads, bodies in queues outside cremation grounds, and individuals running for miles in search of an oxygen cylinder for a sick family member. I’ve watched a person pump a relative’s chest, as she lay on a stretcher outside the hospital gates in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to keep her alive.
While people lost work and struggled to feed themselves, many believe lockdown saved lives during the first wave. “The government should impose the lockdown like last year,” said Mishra, the priest. Increasingly people in Delhi believe shutting everything down is the only option left.
On May 1, Ali admitted his 72-year-old father, Mumtaz, to a local hospital with chest pain. But Mumtaz said he didn’t feel cared for; the overworked staff just didn’t have the capacity to attend to him. “He called me over the phone and wanted me to take him home,” Ali told me. The following day, Ali snuck into the intensive care unit and spent two hours with his father, who succumbed a few hours later.
Mumtaz now lies buried a few miles away from his home in the old city of Delhi. Ali, his youngest son, has been visiting his grave—one of a few dozen freshly dug plots in the cemetery. Recently, I watched Ali stand near his grave, murmuring prayers. He went to fill a plastic can with tap water and returned. He poured cold water on his father’s resting place, moistening the dry soil. And while he cooled the earth, he told me that on the inside he felt hot with rage, like millions of Indians who have watched their relatives and friends die needlessly.