New Delhi, India – Unlike millions of Indians who are struggling for money to get treatment for the deadly coronavirus, Savita Oberoi was neither poor nor helpless.
Even so, her upper-middle-class family could not save her. They were unable to find a hospital bed or oxygen in time, and the 61-year-old lost her life to COVID-19 on April 12.
“We knocked on the doors of at least 15 hospitals, tapped all our networks and contacts to organise treatment for my mother,” says Oberoi’s daughter, Vandana Paliwal, 38, a schoolteacher in West Delhi. “We finally got a bed for mummy after days of trying – that, too, through a contact who knew the hospital management.”
But it was too little, too late. Within hours, Oberoi passed away. The hospital called the family in the middle of the night to tell them she had died.
“All I can say is that Indians aren’t dying because of COVID-19; they’re dying of not getting treatment on time. There’s a big difference. I’ve already lost my dad; and now losing my mom, too, has been a double blow for me,” Paliwal says.
Despite the family’s comfortable financial status, Paliwal recounts how they had to struggle every step of the way to get her mother treated. “Imagine the plight of the poor,” she adds.
“There are long queues everywhere – at clinics, hospitals, labs, drug stores … For two days, we couldn’t even get hold of any lab technician to come over and test my mother. Even if you have the money for COVID-19 treatment, there’s no guarantee you’ll get treatment and live. Simply because there’s precious little you can do about such bureaucracy and bottlenecks.
“Is this how a civilised country functions?” she asks.
When Oberoi was finally tested for COVID-19, the result was delayed. It arrived three days later, after much prodding and pushing from Paliwal who had to follow up with the lab. Meanwhile, Oberoi’s condition deteriorated further.
“We were told that the lab was having a tough time coping with requests from thousands of patients for testing. My mother was already suffering from diabetes and a chronic kidney condition. Systemic delays killed her.”
Until the family received confirmation that Oberoi was indeed COVID positive, they could not start the right treatment. “The wait at every level was frustrating and infuriating. My husband and I were torn between looking after my sick mother and working the phones to contact hospitals and doctors. We didn’t know what to do; it was crazy,” Paliwal says. “The entire world seemed to be collapsing around us.”
Once the family finally got a hospital bed, they heaved a sigh of relief. But Oberoi was reluctant to be admitted. She kept saying she did not have a good feeling about it, her daughter remembers.
“I think my mother had a premonition that she might not come out of the hospital alive. But we told her that there was no other option. She had several comorbidities which had already compromised her immunity; so she needed specialised care. Her sixth sense proved right – she was wheeled in as a living person and came out as a ‘body’.”
The schoolteacher believes that the country’s medical system has totally collapsed “like a house of cards” under the second wave of coronavirus. Unconscionable black markets have mushroomed overnight with treatment drugs and oxygen cylinders being sold to desperate families for at least 10 times their normal price. At the same time, Paliwal says, VIP politicians and celebrities are being given “red carpet treatment and the best doctors made available for them even as ordinary people suffer for no fault of theirs”.
All the while, deaths continue to mount.
“I saw six to seven bodies being cremated simultaneously and hastily when we were at the cremation ground for my mom’s final rites. There’s no dignity in death even. The entire citizenry has been abandoned in their greatest hour of need by those who hold the highest office, entrusted to serve and protect them. This has been the bitter takeaway from this pandemic for millions of Indians.”