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The region around Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world for Hindus, is one of the most affected by the second wave of coronavirus sweeping India.
Many angry citizens of the region in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh are now asking where their MP, Narendra Modi – India’s Prime Minister – is at this time of need.
India’s devastating second wave brought the country’s total infections to 20 million and the death toll to over 220,000. In Varanasi, with the health infrastructure overwhelmed, patients can no longer find a solution. hospital, oxygen, or ambulance beds, and getting tested for Covid can take up to a week. In the past 10 days, most pharmacies ran out of basic medications like vitamins, zinc, and paracetamol.
“We are inundated with calls asking us to help us get a bed or oxygen,” said a local health professional, who did not want to be named. “Since the most basic drugs are scarce, people even take outdated drugs,” he said. “They say it’s a little less effective, but at least it’s something.”
What caused the virus to spread?
Residents of the city say the first signs of unrest became visible in March. As cases escalated in Delhi and Mumbai and authorities there began to impose restrictions, migrant workers began returning home to their villages in Varanasi and surrounding areas on overcrowded trains, buses and trucks. .
Many returned home for the Holi festival on March 29 or to vote in the village council elections on April 18 – held against expert advice. Reports say more than 700 teachers on voting duty have died in the state and the elections have helped spread the virus.
The hospitals in Varanasi were soon overwhelmed and the people left to fend for themselves. Rishabh Jain, a 25-year-old businessman based in the city, told the BBC that when his 55-year-old aunt fell ill he had to walk 30 km every day to stand in line for five hours to fill a bottle of water. ‘oxygen.
“We panicked when his oxygen level dropped below 80,” he said. “We couldn’t find a hospital bed, so the family started reporting an oxygen cylinder over the phone. We tried 25 numbers for 12 to 13 hours and finally with the help of social media and the district administration we were able to get a bottle. recover now. “
Alarmed by the situation, the Allahabad High Court on April 19 ordered a week-long lockdown in Varanasi and four other cities in the state, saying the pandemic had “practically rendered our medical infrastructure unfit.” The state refused to implement it and challenged the order in the Supreme Court, arguing that it had to “protect both lives and livelihoods”.
Critics now say the government hasn’t done either. With the district administration imposing intermittent weekend curfews and most businesses and shops closed out of fear, thousands of people are losing their livelihoods and the virus continues to spread.
The question about numbers
Varanasi has so far recorded 70,612 infections and 690 deaths. But 46,280 – or 65% – of cases have been recorded since April 1. The official Covid death toll for the district hovers around 10-11 almost daily. On Sunday, government data put it at 16. But everyone I spoke to in Varanasi dismissed those numbers as fiction.
A longtime resident of the city, who lives near the Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats – the two main cremation areas on the banks of the Ganges – said the funeral pyres had been burning continuously for the past month.
Previously, the two locations between them would have 80 to 90 cremations per day, but over the past month, the resident said, he believed the number had risen to around 300 to 400 per day.
“How do you explain this increase?” He asked. “Are these people also dying from something? Most reports say they had cardiopulmonary failure. How do so many people, including healthy young individuals, suddenly die of a heart attack? “
A recent video shared by a Varanasi resident showed corpses lined up on either side of a narrow lane leading to the cremation grounds, stretching for a mile. Authorities opened two new cremation grounds about 10 days ago, but reports say they are operating 24 hours a day.
The virus spreads in the villages
The tragedy did not end in the city of Varanasi: the second wave made deep forays into small towns and remote villages in the state. Sudhir Singh Pappu, leader of the Chiraigaon bloc, a group of 110 villages with a population of 230,000 on the outskirts of Varanasi, told the BBC that each village had reported five to 10 deaths in recent days. In some villages, he said, the toll was between 15 and 30.
“There is no hospital in the block, no oxygen and no medication,” he said. “There is no room in public hospitals, private hospitals ask for a deposit of 200,000 rupees (£ 1,953; $ 2,705) to 500,000 rupees before even looking at a patient. We have nowhere. where to go.”
Kamal Kant Pandey, a resident of Aidhe village, said he believed the situation in his village was worse than in the city. “If you tested everyone in my village of 2,700 people, at least half would be positive. So many people have coughs, fever, lower back pain, weakness, loss of taste and smell, ”he said.
The deaths at Aidhe were not on the official database because “there is no testing here,” said Mr Pandey, who was himself ill with the virus but has made a full recovery.
“Imagine, this is the Prime Minister’s constituency and even then we are out of breath,” he said.
‘Modi is hiding’
Mr. Modi often spoke of his “special connection” to the Ganges, the ancient city of Varanasi and the people of the city. But as the virus ravaged the city and medical infrastructure collapsed, Mr. Modi stayed away from his constituency.
Residents saw their MP make 17 trips to the key political state of West Bengal between February and April, to campaign for the assembly elections, which he badly lost over the weekend.
An angry restaurateur described Mr Modi’s review meeting to discuss the Covid crisis in Varanasi on April 17 – a day before the village council elections – as a “farce”.
“The prime minister and the chief minister went underground, leaving Varanasi and its people to their fate,” said the restaurant owner. “Local BJP leaders are also in hiding. They have turned off their phones. This is when people need them to help with a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, but it is anarchy. total here. People are so angry. “
The blame “does not lie with anyone other than the Prime Minister,” Congress politician Gaurav Kapoor said. “The responsibility ends with him. The blame for every death in the past month and a half in Varanasi – and India – is at his doorstep,” Kapoor said.
Like many townspeople, Mr Kapoor has also suffered personally – he lost an aunt and uncle a fortnight ago to Covid and a friend’s brother is now fighting for life in a hospital. When I called him for the interview on Friday, he was isolating himself in a room of the house, infected with coronavirus.
He said when the numbers started to rise he was inundated with calls for help finding a hospital bed or an ambulance.
“But people realized it was unnecessary. The calls are now for oxygen cylinders,” he said.
By all accounts, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Varanasi is in chaos, and the situation on the outskirts and in rural areas, where supplies are even scarce, is worse.
“The doctors there tell me they don’t even have an oximeter, so patients die in their sleep when their oxygen levels drop,” said the owner of a diagnostic center in Varanasi.
“When my wife and child got infected, I called our doctor and did whatever he advised. But what about the illiterate man in the village who has no doctor on his abbreviated dial? Do you know how he lives? He lives by the mercy of God. “
Charts and data analysis by Shadab Nazmi