Daughter of veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi shares a first person account of their struggle against COVID-19 in the week that the pandemic hit its peak in Delhi.
As a child I remember being told my father was somewhere in a far-away land, reporting a story on the Al Fatah guerrillas. I was wonderstruck. I imagined him in the wild, with giant silverback gorillas, and thought he was so brave. But silverbacks were protective said a dog-eared national geographic at our local lending library. I think I slept easy. It took years before adulthood brought me to words like Palestine, and taught me the difference between guerrillas and gorillas. I remember feeling more sad than silly at the loss of my wonderment. It had been a lovely image.
But other fantasies endured. My father was invincible. A globe-trotting risk taker. Flying by the seat of his pants. Running down the tarmac to catch every flight, as the doors were closing. The story goes that he did this once with the Prime Minister’s flight, in days when Indian prime ministers took journalists along on foreign visits. Our years growing up with him, generally in absentia, were peppered with names of wars, conflict zones and collapsed governments – Libya, Syria, Vietnam, Fiji, Nicaragua, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. I forget some.
As a reporter, he slunk away from press conferences. He took to the road. Always last minute. Always out the door before saying goodbye. He’s taught us to not follow the herd. To never believe a third-person account. Believe only your own eyes and ears. A real reporter.
In hindsight, I wonder if it was because he had stopped active field reporting several years ago, and was increasingly suspicious of ‘fake news’, that deep down he simply did not believe COVID-19 was real. He refused to get vaccinated. The one in a million blood clot stories about the AstraZeneca vaccine did not help. He had been through a heart valve replacement in December, a period of endless references to blood thinners and clots. COVID-19 to him was unknown, but clots were to be determinedly avoided.
So it came to be, as if he himself willed it, that my high-risk-taking, barely-caught-the-flight father, tested fate and death and SARS-CoV-2, the very week Delhi hit its peak. On April 20, Delhi saw the highest single-day spike ever of 28,395 new cases, and by April 23, its seven-day average was the highest it has been during this second wave – 25,294.
April 23 was the day Batra Hospital and Medical Research Centre put out an SOS, saying they may run out of oxygen by 8:30 pm. Only 30 minutes of oxygen left, reported the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre. The same day, Bram Health Care Pvt. Limited and Batra Hospital moved the Delhi high court on this issue. Holy Family hospital on the same day announced it had oxygen left just for a few hours. And Sir Gangaram and Max Saket reported that they received some oxygen supplies after SOS calls. April 23 was the day Dad’s O2 decided to take a dive. And this veteran journalist became a statistic in a story he did not believe.
In free fall
The virus came with no standard warning. Just a couple of days of low fever and a funny tummy. Stomach infection, he said. He did not get a COVID-19 test.
That evening I made a normal ‘How are you doing, Papa?’ call, and asked mum casually to check his O2. Asking knowledgeably for O2 saturation levels had by now become routine. Citizen-quackery. Meant to signify great COVID-19 expertise. (I was a clear quack – unprepared for anything that came after the O2 question had been answered.) Their cook had had COVID-19, so the word ‘oximeter’ was not completely foreign.
She flurried and scrambled around for the talismanic object. “I found it and stuck his finger in it but the screen is a blank,” she said. ‘Try again, Ma.’ ‘Now it is showing 87.’ Her tone was not alarmed, just flat and measured like it often is when there is creeping anxiety. My husband ran over with our oximeter. By the time he reached, 20 minutes later, dad’s O2 saturation was 85 and dipping. My father was, perhaps for the first time in his life, heaving on a tarmac without enough oxygen, looking up at that airplane door slowly closing.
We had no oxygen concentrator, no oxygen cylinder, and no doctor on call. It was evening. Dad’s regular GP was handling a stream of COVID-19 patients in a hospital and did not answer the phone. Imagine a potentially deadly virus at your father’s door in 2021 in the capital city of a self-proclaimed wannabe-bullet-train-global-leader-country, until six years ago one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. And then imagine all basic care – hospitals and medicines and doctors in Delhi you knew had been there just yesterday, poofed into thin air. We were in free fall.
We have all experienced desperate times when we lost people we loved to sickness and disease despite our best efforts. You know what must be done. You do everything in your power. You know you have done your best. This moment was utterly different. Because we knew what had to be done. We just could not seem to do it. It was like night terrors where you know you have to flee whatever is coming behind you but the feet don’t move. And you must wake up. I felt my body entering the zone of primal instinct. Like that silverback gorilla of my childhood. To protect at all cost.
I am not active on social media, but I put out an SOS call for a hospital bed on my Signal groups. My sister put it out on Twitter. Gradually, help came. We can send a concentrator, wrote H and S. Yes. So grateful. Thank you. We are coming in an hour with one cylinder, responded the IYC relief group to my sister’s Twitter SOS. Yes. Yes. Thank you. The WhatsApp that I was definitely getting off, when they announced a change in their privacy setting some months ago. That WhatsApp became our lifeline. Friends and strangers were our safety net. NR found us a doctor.
NR: Ok. Trying all hospitals I know. Where is he just now?
F: home. Saket
NR: Please call Dr AS of X Hospital right away. At xxxxxxxxxx. This instant.
F: Ok. With him. Getting advice.
F: Been a harrowing evening. Would not have made it without friends reaching out.
NR: That’s what friends are for.
An army of other friends and cousins worked phones in case no ICU or oxygen bed was found. Could we find an attendant and oxygen and manage dad at home for a night or two? They called every lead.
J: Has a bed been found?
J: is there an oxygen cylinder, should I try for one?
F: Yes. We r borrowing D’s concentrator for a few hours, and then H is sending another one
F: Need to keep him stable tonight.
J: How are you and where are you right now
F: At home. Been working phones and messages non-stop since early evening. Cried a few times. V is there monitoring Dad through the night.
J: You’ll need energy for tomorrow
All night we worked phones. Using leads from WhatsApp groups, from anywhere. But still no bed. We used the Delhi government’s site (delhifightscorona.in) for hospital beds. It showed vacancies. All lies. Not a single hospital ever answered any phone. My sister tried her networks. Nothing. False hopes were raised. A bed available now. Gone in five minutes. It was the kind of time when the unconscious kicks in way ahead of one’s conscious ability to process or remember. For each call for help I put out, I know some part of my brain was hot-wiring to five others; the primal brain knew it had to bypass standard ignition. And the body learnt to live on three-four hours of wakeful sleep, hugging a cell phone. In case someone called. In case there was a message. Ringer on high volume.
NA: Just saw your sister’s tweet about your father needing a hospital bed. Don’t know what to say.
F: U know anyone? Need a bed w oxygen. He is at home on oxygen support, but needs a hospital. Or, anyone who can help. Will be eternally grateful.
NA: Just asking around. A friend just sent this – Fwd: Good evening 🙂 There are unfortunately NO beds currently available in any hospital. The issue is compounded due to lack of oxygen as well. Please send me his name and contact number… In the meanwhile, if they would like to avail X@Home services, let me know…
Friends called home-care services of leading hospitals. They had all collapsed. Some were outsourcing to private agencies. One agency offered a 12 hr person for Rs 10,000 a day but no oxygen. Most said no.
My father made it through the night between a concentrator and a cylinder, manned by my husband, who knew not a thing about either. He fumbled and figured out regulators and nose pipes. Oxygen flow – 2 litres, 5 litres or 10 litres? You just learn I guess. He turned the O2 on, and kept it on. That much we knew.
By morning, it was clear that we could not manage at home. And by late afternoon N, himself down with COVID-19 in a hospital in Okhla, came through with an oxygen bed in the High Dependency Unit (HDU) of the same hospital. God bless him and yes, shame on me – I was even calling friends who were sick in hospitals for leads. It was evening by the time a bed was available. The hospital’s ambulances were out on multiple runs, so they hired us a freelance ambulance. It took three hours to come. It was past 10 pm.
At the time of admission, the hospital informed us as per protocol that they did not have free ventilators or BiPaP machines. I logged this vital info away in the back of my brain. For now, they had doctors and oxygen and IV lines and an ICU. With relief, we admitted him. But our hunt for oxygen continued. We feared the stories coming out from many hospitals. Culling of the elderly. Doctors making tough choices between who to give oxygen to. The young or the old. Hospitals were running out of O2.
F: Have one empty cylinder at home. Need refill. Unable to call the many numbers circulating on WhatsApp.
J: Am asking about cylinder. Bhogal, Jangpura. I called someone and they have volunteers on the spot to see where refilling is being done.
J: Good news is cylinder is being refilled as I type. Praise the lord!
F: I am trying to get another empty cylinder.
J: Faridabad there is a place where cylinder can be filled. I have asked H’s son to go check. Let me know when you get the empty cylinder. M and S are also chasing leads.
J: Oxygen is finishing in Bhogal. Send him to Faridabad to fill the second one
J: Shoot. Even the first one was not filled. They ran out in Bhogal.
F: A just been stopped by cops for not having an e-pass. He was picking up the empty cylinder from a cousin. The cops have taken 2000 bucks from him.
The virus comes back
While we were still hunting for life-giving breath, my father was discharged from the hospital just five days after he was admitted, on April 29 with normal O2 saturation. The virus was wily. And on the drive home, it came back. My father arrived into my weary mother’s embrace, with O2 dipping again, visibly disoriented from lack of oxygen to the brain. He had no idea what was happening. He had already left behind in hospital one kurta, whose pocket held his Aadhar card, his press card and my ammajaan’s (his mother’s) handwritten dua (prayer). She had passed away in 2013. The last document is the only one he really cared about. But at this point, these were minor worries compared to leaving behind a steady oxygen supply.
F: Try and get a cylinder. Papa is back home but O2 levels are dropping again. Using a concentrator now. But need a cylinder tonight.
AN: Okay! Will update you if I get something.
F: It is an emergency.
AN: On it. Calling people now. Do we have empty cylinder
F: No. A half full one.
AN: Okay. We’ll go get it. It will take 2-3 hours
AN: Got the cylinder. Going to get it refilled now
AN: No oxygen available anywhere. It’s unimaginable.. there was hardly any place to walk… horrifying. Screaming and crying voices of people desperate for refill. Trying a place in Noida also.
F: Taking him back to Emergency.
We had not managed to refill our cylinders. But the precious hospital bed had already gone to another patient, and we were back to square one – working phones.
He was slipping away. With no time to even call an ambulance, we rigged up my parent’s car with a half-full oxygen cylinder, and took him right back to the emergency ward – his second admission into the same hospital. I do not blame them for what in hindsight was an early first discharge. All hospitals were under pressure to release patients who showed normal O2, even if it was for a brief hopeful day or two. This time dad stayed there for another four days, moving from emergency room to HDU to a room. On May 3, R came through for us. R’s father had managed the near-impossible – a COVID-19 bed in a larger hospital, with access to ventilators and BiPaP machines in case of the worst, under the care of my father’s regular GP. We shifted him – his third hospital admission by this time. I think that evening was the first time in days that I slept.
It was a brief calm before another brewing storm hit us. A day after my father was admitted for the first time, my younger sister and her husband had come down with severe symptoms. They had fallen silent on the WhatsApp group we created to respond to my father’s situation. And we were now keeping an eye on two family homes. The one permanent oxygen concentrator finally procured in the middle of this crisis, made many trips from one home to the other.
And on May 3, the very evening dad was shifted to a bigger hospital, my brother-in-law was rushed to another hospital, and into the ICU. His O2 was 70. His body was not responding to anything, including Remdesivir. The doctors were not hopeful. My baby sister was weeping. Paralyzed with fear. ‘They are asking me to pray.’ she said. ‘Why are they asking me to pray?’ My sisters and I decided not to tell my parents. My brother-in-law was fully vaccinated, with two doses of Covishield. We will never know if it was that, or the cocktail of drugs pumped into his system. After two terrible nights, he turned around.
In the meantime, on April 29, my 13-year-old son tested positive and was in a 14-day isolation in one room in our flat. My husband was already in quarantine in another room, after his repeated exposure to the coronavirus while helping my father in and out of hospitals. So it was me outside, managing the home for much of the time that I am writing about. Just as well. Nerves were frayed. Emotions were being kept on a tight leash, eyeing outlets to decompress. My husband and I firmly placed our customary quarrels in the store room and became the best WhatsApp buddies.
Together we have learnt that a five litre capacity oxygen concentrator is less effective than a seven litre or 10 litre concentrator. That a concentrator is life-saving but does not give the pure medical oxygen a cylinder does. Unbranded, Chinese-made concentrators are to be avoided. Oxygen cylinders come in all heights and girths. Ask for capacity. Oxygen cans are different from cylinders. Choose the latter. That without a regulator and a nose pipe, a cylinder is just heavy metal. That pressure in a cylinder matters for flow. We also learnt that empty 10 litre oxygen cylinders were going for Rs 10,000 on April 23, and for Rs 23,000 on April 30. That filling a cylinder could mean an all-night vigil and take you across three states, from Noida (UP) to Faridabad (Haryana) to Okhla and Bhogal (Delhi). That the small sized ones get filled first. That there is a ladies queue.
Home to a ravaged garden
My father made it home on May 15, 2021. He is chastened, weakened and sad. In the 22 days and nights he spent in two hospitals, death has come and ravaged his garden. His friends have died. The world looks different. We have forgotten how to grieve.
Now that the agonising exhaustion is done, I look at the wasteland all around. And shall hold forever in one corner of my heart the sense of nearness to people I felt in those days and nights. This is how we shall get through this long twilight. With the love that had no agenda, no desire to give a benefit or receive a gratitude. It was unmarked by sense of beneficence. The love that was there because we are fellow beings in a hailstorm and we hold hands.
Some moments stand out.
- A dear friend from school days lost her father to COVID-19 on April 30. I will never forget the call to her that morning. She said, “Please take my Dad’s concentrator.” Just hours after losing her father, her thought was to pass on a scarce life-saving resource, that might save my father’s life.
- A young man, a close colleague of a friend, moved his father to a hospital and offered us his jumbo 45 litre cylinder. We found people to drive to Faridabad to pick it up. We had two people stand in overnight queues to fill it after many days of trying. It was heavy. We got it home. It spelt 24 hours of life-giving breath. The same young man, days later, lost his 29-year-old brother to COVID-19.
Broken city in a broken country
I was born in Delhi. Never imagined such a broken city in such a broken country. It has felt like commandeering a small war room in the kind of failed states my father once reported from. We won a personal battle against SARS-CoV2. The bigger war, India has lost already.
This past month, I buried all space in my heart for anger or grief. It is coming back. For the uncounted who are dying without hospitals and oxygen and doctors. And I know we did not lose this war because it took the government eight months from the start of the pandemic in March last year to float tenders for PSA oxygen plants worth a mere Rs 200 crore. It did not happen because they only managed to set up 33 of these 162 plants by April 18. It did not happen because they ignored the parliamentary committee that red-flagged essential steps way back in November. It did not happen because the government ignored the warnings about a new variant of the virus issued in early March by the Indian SARs-CoV2 Genetics Consortium or INSACOG. We lost the battle much, much earlier.
This disaster is a symptom. Recall all those global indices on which India slipped. Read them again carefully – V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report, 2021, which designated India an ‘electoral autocracy’ and the Freedom House Report, 2021, which called us ‘partly free’. Look closely at the indicators that V-Dem used – Freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, freedom of association, judicial and legislative constraints on the executive, checks and balances, civil society participation. Look particularly closely at V-Dem’s Deliberative Component Index that captures how decisions are reached, based on indicators of – a) Reasoned justification. b) Common good, b) Respect counter arguments, c) Range of consultations, and d) Engaged society.
This crisis is upon our heads because we lost our democracy. We could not ask questions, we could not seek answers. Democracy is not a system that throws up perfect leaders. Or, the best crisis managers. It is a system that can throw up life-saving conversations. Talking. Listening. Counter-arguing. Interrogating power. Self-correcting leaders who represent We the People. The notion of the common good. That is what it was meant to be.
When those who questioned were jailed, and those who disagreed were sacked, we lost the chance to be good at the one thing we used to have a talent for. The one thing this insane, diverse, unequal, casteist, communal, argumentative, opinionated country had a global shot at – a chance at being a half-decent democracy. We failed so colossally. The political suffocation of the last 7 years was the scary mirror to this future. Yes, my father has lived, only to watch his fellow Indians dying.
Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.