India’s COVID crisis: ‘I begged for help. My father still died’

Unable to find a hospital bed for his father, Ashish Shrivastav watched helplessly as his father struggled to breathe for two days.

Sushil Kumar, 70, who died on April 16 after his son tried for 36 hours to find him a hospital bed [Sumit Kumar/Al Jazeera]

Lucknow, India – On April 14, Ashish Shrivastav, 39, bundled his 70-year-old father who was complaining of breathlessness into his small nano car and took him to the Vivekanand hospital in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state.

At the hospital, his father, Sushil Kumar, tested positive for COVID-19 but, despite his age and vulnerability, the hospital told him he could not be admitted as there were no beds available.

Ashish, who runs a private rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities, says he begged the doctors to admit his father but they told him to go to a government-run hospital instead.

So Ashish put his father back in the car, bought two five-litre oxygen cylinders and began the search for a hospital that would admit him.

“We kept … [the oxygen cylinders] in the rear seat of the car and placed that oxygen mask on my father’s nose and then we went to the COVID centre in the Lalbagh area of the city in the hope that my father could get admitted. I got the registration formalities done through the dedicated COVID helpline but the government hospital and even the private ones we also tried all refused us admission.

“All the hospitals asked for a referral letter from the Chief Medical Officers (CMO). When I went to the CMO’s office, I had to wait [because there were so many people there]. While I was waiting, I was forced to leave the premises by the police deployed at the office,” Ashish says.

During the first half of April, COVID-positive patients admitted to any hospital in Lucknow required a referral letter from the CMO’s office. To procure that letter, it was mandatory for patients to show an RT-PCR test confirming a COVID infection. But after a public outcry, the Uttar Pradesh government recently removed the referral letter requirement.

Ashish says he tried many private and government-run healthcare facilities in Lucknow but his father was refused admission at each of them.

“I went everywhere like a beggar and tried many other hospitals on the phone as well. My father was telling me to take him home and he would be fine but I knew that his condition was deteriorating.

“We ran pillar to post … to get my father admitted in any hospital in Lucknow.”

Sushil Kumar can be seen in the back of his son’s car, before he died on April 16 [Sumit Kumar/Al Jazeera]

During that time, Ashish says he had to refill his father’s oxygen cylinder twice to keep him alive.

“We finally got him admitted to a private clinic with the help of my doctor friend after 36 hours.”

But it was too late. His father died on the morning of April 16.

The following day, Ashish says he received a telephone call from the COVID Command Control Centre, telling him that a bed had been allocated for his father at a Lucknow hospital. He says it was like being struck “with a dagger”.

“Just two days before that date it could have made a big difference to save my father.”

Now, he says, his “father’s death is on the hands of those bureaucrats and politicians who are not concerned about people but about their parties and vested interests. The helpline numbers they have issued are switched off and those working take at least 15 minutes for the registration [over the phone]”.

Now, Ashish and his wife have also tested positive and have gone into self-isolation.

“We have no idea what to do. Should I grieve for my father who I could not save or should I take care of myself and my wife? I have no idea how to cope with the loss or what to do but if there had been proper interventions by the government at the right time, perhaps the condition of my family or thousands of families like us would have been different,” he says.

‘Spreading at an unimaginable speed’

Rising COVID deaths, mass cremations, and an acute shortage of beds and oxygen suggest that Uttar Pradesh is fast becoming India’s next COVID-19 hotspot unless drastic measures are taken by the government to contain the virus.

Uttar Pradesh is one of the most populous states in India, with a population of 200 million people. Infections are rising by more than 22,000 cases each day.

The central government has projected that Uttar Pradesh will report more than 190,000 cases a day by the end of April. The ongoing deadly surge in COVID-19 cases is expected to peak in mid-May with a daily count that is likely to reach 500,000 and may subside by June to July, according to India’s central COVID panel.

As of April 28, the total number of cumulative cases in Uttar Pradesh stood at 300,041 while 11,943 people have died of COVID. In Lucknow, the total cumulative number is 46,596 with 1,726 total deaths.

Harjit Singh Bhatti, a Delhi-based doctor and National President of the Progressive Medicos & Scientists Forum (PMSF), who practices at a private hospital that has been turned into a COVID facility, says: “This is a health emergency. The situation in the wards is appalling. Sometimes we have to put two people on one bed because we have to save their lives. The wards are working beyond their capacity. The resources are limited and the numbers of patients arriving at hospitals are beyond imagination.

“We doctors feel grief and relief at the same time when a patient passes away because we are able to give a ventilator, oxygen to another patient who has some hope of getting saved by timely medical help. The government should immediately take the help of the army and make available as many beds possible because the virus is spreading at an unimaginable speed.”

Source: Al Jazeera