Two and a half years ago, the world was dealt a blow in the form of COVID, the after-effects of which still linger in multifarious ways. India was no exception. An astronomical 5,33,295 people have died of the disease in India alone since the epidemic began. This was the official figure, updated until November 2023. The bulk of the deaths took place in the second wave, which began in February 2021. By June 2021, four lakh people had died. India was the second country after the US to be affected most by the pandemic.
Burning Pyres, Mass Graves and a State That Failed Its People: India’s COVID Tragedy
Speaking Tiger Books
Price: Rs. 599
During the pandemic and later, people attempted to pen down the effects of that devastation that spread like a plague. Today it all appears like a distant blur: the exodus of vast groups of people from cities when the first wave struck, the lockdowns that rendered lakhs of people jobless, the overflowing hospital beds, and people struggling for oxygen and hospital admissions in the second wave. It is said that with time people forget their personal tragedies. But the pandemic has left an indelible mark in the lives of many people. There was no family that had not experienced some loss or the other. Personal losses apart, people got affected economically as well.
Harsh Mander’s Burning Pyres, Mass Graves takes the reader back to what happened in those tumultuous months when people were left to fend for themselves as the government did not take the second wave as seriously as it should have. Mander aptly calls it the gravest health emergency in a century. He was on the ground and observed at first hand how people were reduced to objects of charity as they lost their jobs overnight and had to stand in queues for food. As people dropped out of work, children dropped out of school.
Mander and others went around in Delhi helping out whichever way they could. The pandemic came soon after riots in North East Delhi. Mander and several others were already involved in setting up relief camps for those whose homes were looted and properties razed in the clashes that followed the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The pandemic was a double whammy for those who suffered in the violence.
As the pandemic raged, it claimed the lives of young, middle-aged, and old people. Some died among strangers, some perished at the gates of hospitals as they could not get access to oxygen cylinders, while others died in the confines of their homes, unable to access either a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder. Mander lost his father in the pandemic. Like several others, he did not have the luxury to grieve. Neither could he assemble the people who loved his father to pay their last respects. The book is an act of remembering, he writes.
The pandemic was an equaliser in a sense, claiming the lives of ordinary people and the elite. Yet there was a class bias at the level of the state. While the salaries of government servants and the organised private sector were protected, no such protection existed for unorganised sector workers. Mander says the Rs.500 that was credited to Jan Dhan accounts amounted to two days’ wages. The government did not provide free vaccines for all. Registering on the app on smartphones was a nightmare for the working class, the majority of whom did not have smartphones. Those who could pay got vaccinated at private hospitals.
Individual narratives and media reports
The book is in two parts, apparently disparate, yet connected. The first, with 11 chapters, deals with the lockdown and its aftermath. The second part, in 12 chapters, is on the “horrors of the second wave”. Both sections draw on the individual narratives of people who experienced the crisis at first hand: medical experts, health workers, and media reports.
India generated a lot of interest because it appeared that the government had a thing or two to prove to the world. It was all about showcasing the success of controlling the pandemic. At the end of the second wave, there was little to brag about with more than four lakh people dead. Many countries resorted to lockdowns, but India’s lockdown was singular in the way it was “entirely sudden, precipitous, imposed on a country of over a billion and a quarter without any kind of advance warning or public discussion or consultation with experts”. Mander writes that it was “brutally enforced”.
The pandemic was seen as a law-and-order crisis and not as a humanitarian health emergency. It was alleviated, he writes, by “one of the smallest, most unsubstantial relief packages in the world”. To expect “social distancing” from informal sector workers who lived in cramped and shared habitations was the unkindest cut of all. The book succeeds in drawing out the ironies of implementing a lockdown and imposing a social distancing policy in a country where the majority were employed in the informal sector.
The television visuals of migrants rushing to bus stops and railway stations and being lathicharged in some States for violating curfew are not easy to erase from memory. The book brings to life those visuals. The second wave struck when life had almost returned to normal and there was a general complacency from top down that India had seen the worst of the pandemic. After a brief lull in the winter of 2020, the virus returned in a mutated form, more virulent than ever.
The system, which never was there in the first place, crumbled. There was black-marketing of drugs, oxygen cylinders, and oxymeters and overcharging at hospitals and pharmacies, and even funeral services were more expensive. Many people were making a killing, including the vaccine makers. Doctors, paramedical staff, and health workers, already overworked, watched helplessly even as those who could afford the best of treatment in the best of hospitals succumbed.
There was another irony in the making. The number of dollar billionaires grew in the 2021-22 period, writes Mander, while 84 per cent of Indian households reeled under a decline in income, many falling into deep poverty. Mander writes that the humanitarian crisis during the pandemic was an outcome of public policy choices that treated the working poor as dispensable. He gives the example of China. Even at the peak of the pandemic, he writes, China, with its “authoritarian state apparatus”, deployed “the harsh instrument of a sweeping lockdown mainly in its large cities, restricting the movement of 56 million people, or around five per cent of its population of 1.4 billion people”. India, which “prides itself as a democracy, imposed at one stroke a complete lockdown on its entire population of 1.3 billion and that too with a notice of three and a half hours”.
As it happens in most cases, people eventually did get on with their lives and, strangely, so did the government. Many promises to revamp the health infrastructure were made. But even today, government health expenditure constitutes less than 3 per cent of the GDP.
The pandemic brought out the worst and also the best among people. The book refers to Pradip Bijalwan, a deeply committed doctor who was trained in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Mander got to know him through a street medicine programme that he was involved in for the homeless in Delhi. Bijalwan worked relentlessly throughout the pandemic, caught the infection in the course of his work, and died. Like Bijalwan, there were several others who pitched in with free community kitchens and even supplied oxygen cylinders.
At the other end of the spectrum were those who blamed the poor or sections of the minorities for spreading the virus. The pandemic became an excuse for communal targeting. In the early days of the outbreak, members of the Tablighi Jamaat were singled out and blamed for transmitting the virus. A Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry, who was assigned the daily media briefings, claimed that cases were rising because members of the Tablighi Jamaat had travelled across the country. Sections of the media played up this narrative. The chapter “Did the Coronavirus Turn Muslim” addresses this issue.
The pandemic had a lesson for all, especially the government. For those who lost family members, friends, and colleagues, COVID-19 is not a distant memory. They relive it every moment. Burning Pyres, Mass Graves reminds us of the need to go beyond the realm of private grief, compelling the reader to look at what could have been done, mostly by the government.
Lest we forget.