India COVID crisis: ‘If I don’t work my children will starve’

A family in Kashmir, whose members are all illiterate, have struggled to understand the implications of testing positive for COVID.

A COVID-positive family in Srinagar, Kashmir, is seen through the window isolating and taking oxygen [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

For Mohammad Ghulam Bhat, 63, who cannot read or write, is completely deaf and can only communicate via sign language, life was already a struggle before the COVID pandemic took hold.

He used to support his wife, Rukhsana, 50, three daughters aged 15, 10 and six, and one son, 12, by taking on casual manual labour – when he could find it. These days, due to his age, he relies mostly on begging on the street, bringing in a monthly income of about 3,000 rupees ($41) for the whole family, who reside in a small shack in Hamdanpora in the Kulgam district of Indian-administered Kashmir.

But on the morning of April 27, he started to experience a sore throat, breathlessness and fever.

Mohammad rushed to the nearest medical centre. There, he tested positive for COVID. The hospital staff tried to explain to him the dangers of the virus and the precautions he should take at home. But, unable to understand what they were saying, he left the hospital in confusion.

Back home, his eldest daughter was able to understand the test result and, recalling seeing a few posters and hearing radio advertisements, explained that he was sick. However, as none of the family can read or write, they had little access to any in-depth information about the nature of COVID. They did not understand that they needed to isolate.

The family spent the day taking care of Mohammad, giving him home remedies, such as hot water and blankets, for his fever and sore throat. But they did not understand how contagious or dangerous COVID could be.

By the next morning, Mohammad’s breathing had become laboured. His wife went around the neighbourhood, asking for help. One man – Naveed Abdallah, 25, a graphic designer who lives with his parents and five siblings close by – offered to help, even though he and his entire family had also tested positive for COVID earlier in April – they have all since recovered.

“Many neighbours around were angry about the fact that Mohammad had run away from the hospital and didn’t take any precautions. But they were not taking into consideration the family’s social, financial and educational standing,” Naveed says.

Naveed took his family’s oximeter – a small, handheld device that measures oxygen saturation in the blood – with him and checked Mohammad’s levels. It had dropped to 60 percent. A safe level is 95 percent, and anything below 80 percent can cause damage to the brain.

“I told Mohammad that I must take him to the hospital immediately because this number means that his life was under threat. I also tried to make him and his children understand the consequences of this deadly virus but all in vain,” says Naveed.

“He was unable to understand the urgency of the situation, probably due to my incompetence at sign language. I looked around for his wife but the children informed me that she had left the house in the morning before I arrived.”

After 30 minutes, Naveed went back home to check on his father who was COVID-positive at the time, and, when he returned to the Bhat family, was alarmed to find Mohammad’s oxygen levels had fallen to 40 percent.

“Fear ran through my spine. The possibility of Mohammad dying in front of me and my inability to take him to the hospital was making me anxious. And, moreover, I had heard that the hospitals did not have sufficient oxygen,” he recalls.

A gymnasium in Srinagar, Kashmir, has been converted into a COVID centre after cases began to rise sharply across Kashmir in the past couple of weeks [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

Naveed immediately went to fetch his sick father, Mohammad Abdallah, 50, who works as a chief technician at a health centre in the town of Bijbehara, in the hope that he could help.

“My father was on oxygen and breathless as well; he had to make an extra effort to walk, but seeing the urgency of the situation, he went and gave Mohammad injections of Dexona, to reduce inflammation and swelling in his body. After a few hours, Mohammad started becoming a little more stable.”

Meanwhile, Naveed called two of his friends and asked them if oxygen cylinders could be arranged for the Bhat family. After a few hours, they finally managed to obtain one cylinder from an NGO.

“When I took the cylinder to their house, the entire family gasped and thought that their father was dying. This humongous machine was a sight of terror for them, but this sight of terror was what saved Mohammad.”

When Mohammad’s wife, Rukhsana returned to the house in the afternoon, Naveed asked her where she had been.

“Had I not gone out, my children would have died of hunger. What else was I supposed to do?” she replied, explaining that she had been working cutting the grass in a nearby field.

Naveed asked her to try to stay at home because it was highly likely that Rukhsana was also COVID-positive and might transmit the infection to others outside. “I also told her that her husband needed care and supervision, so she needed to be in the house.”

Naveed offered to help her financially for the days she would be unable to go out to work. “I tried asking people, over social media, to help them in this time of need,” said Naveed.

The next day, Mohammad’s condition worsened and his oxygen levels began to fall again, despite the boost from the oxygen cylinder. “I had to take my own father to the hospital and asked Rukhsana to take Mohammad as well,” says Naveed.

Mohammad has now been admitted to the government hospital in Kulgam where his wife is struggling to understand what is happening and what care her husband requires, while also worrying about her four children back at home. “He is still extremely weak and I am trying to manage the hospital procedures but it is difficult. My 15-year-old daughter is managing the house and her three siblings with occasional help from our neighbours,” says Rukhsana.

The case highlights how poverty and illiteracy may be exacerbating this pandemic. In Kashmir, where poverty levels are around half that of the rest of India as a whole – 10 percent of people are believed to live in poverty in Indian-administered Kashmir, compared with 22 percent across the whole country – illiteracy levels are high, at 33 percent, according to the most recent Indian Census, 2011. Illiteracy in India as a whole stands at approximately 22 percent of the population.

Source: Al Jazeera