Inside India’s COVID Wards

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S1: Geohot Ranna says being in India right now means constantly asking yourself, when will I get covid?

S2: It’s like a circle that’s closing in. You hear of a distant contact in your neighborhood school within your friend’s bed and has to be transparent. Has died. A grandparent has died. You know, my father’s and stuff like that. So you hear this like it comes closer and closer to when you wonder how long will you remain unscathed? And that’s not just me that everyone everyone these days.

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S1: You’ve probably heard the stories about hospitals that are overfull and simultaneously discharging body after body about the medicine that’s in such short supply, oxygen, too. If I needed oxygen in India right now, what would you tell me to do?

S2: So the first thing would be if you’re above sort of 92, still in 93, 94 range, you won’t get a bed, you won’t be prioritized.

S1: Shot means if your oxygen saturation is low, it’s got to be really low to get a doctor’s attention.

S2: So what would happen first is you will wait till it’s like 92 to start panicking because because there’s nothing else to do. If it’s still dipping, then you start looking for an oxygen cylinder concentrator, which you can install at home. Hmm. Now, for that, what you do is you start messaging everyone you know. You go to Instagram, you go to Twitter.

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S1: Jahad. Social media feeds have been filled with these messages over the last few weeks. Friends and family tapping out desperate memos almost always marked urgent in all caps. Have you seen these? Please work. Someone put information out and say, I really need this right away and someone comes through for them.

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S2: Yeah, it’s it’s worked. It’s not worked, I’m sure quite a few times you like. A few hours later you see a tweet saying that this person passed away, I think. But there are times when I think I have followed their lead personally that’s worked or someone else has forwarded to me, which I forwarded it and it has worked.

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S1: Did that feel good, like did you feel like, oh, OK, one person’s taken care of or I wonder if you felt like this is just one person out of so many.

S2: Yeah, I don’t think this time to even feel good about it. You’re on to the next. And you also what what will be the next need. OK, I got them that one oxygen cylinder. Maybe they got that. Maybe they may find for now. And when oxygen floats again within a few hours we’ll be able to get the next. If it falls even more, will we be able to get them a ventilator bed in an ICU? So it’s it’s hard to feel hopeful.

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S1: Today on the show, Jahad spent the last few weeks in and out of India’s covid wards and waiting in line with mourners who just want to put their loved ones to rest. She’s going to take us inside a crisis that she says her government should have seen coming. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Do you remember when it felt like India had kind of dodged a bullet when it came to the coronavirus and what that was like

S2: in the last year and early this year? Everyone was a little more hopeful.

S1: Yeah, December. January.

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S2: Yeah, December. Especially because we would I mean, I personally was reading news about the US even and seeing the spike on November, December. It was really bad and I would feel like it’s surprising that we’re still doing OK compared to that. I mean, being in a country that does not have such health care resources, that level of infrastructure and development, et cetera, you know, it was surprising that we didn’t reach the kind of level of apocalyptic chaos that we reached now. And for a minute, we thought maybe I mean, at least I thought maybe that’s never going to happen, at least not to this extent. So, yeah, and then the messaging around where we are in terms of the pandemic and what the government sort of tried to tell people, especially when the two new vaccines were approved in India, was that, yeah, we had the vaccines, the numbers are low and we’re going to beat this.

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S1: But while India’s leaders were celebrating manufacturing those vaccines, they weren’t doing a whole lot to convince the Indian people to get vaccinated. So far, only nine percent of India’s population has gotten a shot. Only one point seven percent is fully vaccinated, at least according to the latest data from the University of Oxford published in The New York Times. The numbers are low for a lot of reasons, Geohot says one of them is vaccine hesitancy, but not the same kind you’d find in the US, John says, in India. This is something completely new.

S2: We have a very good immunization program, a universal immunization program. There is faith in that system. People line up to get vaccinated. So there is faith in vaccines in general in immunization programs. What happened here is, at least in the earlier phases, it was frontline workers and health care workers who were getting vaccinated. And I think the government did not do enough in terms of communicating the science, the research that the vaccine to instill that faith in them because the regulatory approvals were granted to these two vaccines, it seemed quite rushed only because we wanted to make in India a national vaccine as soon as possible. That’s what the government wanted. So there was a worry that scientific rigor has been compromised just to show that we had these to make any new vaccines. And, you know, India has done so well and there’s no doubt these vaccines. The problem is not that we can trust these vaccines or the science behind it or our scientists, et cetera. The problem is that we do not communicate in a way that instills faith in these vaccines. A lot of health care workers in the beginning were very hesitant to get these vaccines.

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S1: Well, then it’s interesting, too, because the numbers were low. Of course, you had your prime minister giving a speech at Davos basically saying we’re at the end of dealing with covid in January. Yeah. And so you can kind of see how everything combines and a practical person might think, well, I can skip it. I don’t need it.

S2: Yeah, that’s something that I, I hope people see as well, like some people that have already been infected. So why take that risk? I went through this last year and it was OK

S1: because people were assuming they’d already had it and had developed some immunity

S2: yet, which clearly is not the case. The infections have occurred. I mean, we don’t have really good data on the rate of the infection in India. But anecdotally, yes, we know that so many people, so many health care workers, front line workers, just generally people have been infected and have faced somewhat even more severe symptoms this time than nastiness, especially the one back to nature.

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S1: When did you sense something was changing? Cases were picking up and it might be getting dangerous.

S2: I think by the end of February and early March, there was a lot of talk about one specific state, which is Maharastra.

S1: That and that’s where Mumbai is.

S2: Yeah, yeah. That’s where Mumbai is, that the state is the capital of Maharashtra. So there was a spike there. But the way the government was talking about it is that this is once isolating particular states and seeing the central government, not the health ministry. They were pointing out certain states and being like these are problems. They’re not doing well enough. They need to do this. They need to ramp up their vaccination of their testing. So it was it seemed like it’s not a national problem. It was a very specific epidemic, localized, and this is the state’s problem. But otherwise, India is doing well

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S1: with the government giving reasons why covid cases might be on the rise in particular places.

S2: Well, they were giving reasons, but those things didn’t add up. So a lot of people were asking these questions like, OK, Maharashtra is speaking, Punjab is speaking. Why is the rest of the country not? And they were to answers to it. But the main sort of answer that they always gave was good for fatigue, which is that people are not taking precautions, etc. but that could be applied to any state. So that didn’t make sense. There was some conversation about mutations and a mutant sort of virus, but nothing has been done even until now. More significant research has been done to sort of face that virus. There was a sort of mutant biosequestration Maharastra in some districts about Australian, but nothing has been done to see whether these are more infectious, more dangerous. So, again, there’s no conclusive sort of evidence to suggest that this might have caused a spike in Maharastra as compared to other places.

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S1: I’m thinking about the United States. And here we kind of tried to prop up a contact tracing system state by state, and some of those were more successful than others. I wonder if in the time from when the coronavirus began, when it appeared whether India had been able to prop up the system so that when cases did begin to surge, there is some ability to answer the. Question of why?

S2: Contact tracing was something that was spoken about and a lot was perhaps done in the early sort of months of the pandemic, and that’s during the lockdown. So perhaps between March and me, there was a lot of talk about contact tracing. But I think since then it’s just been an abandoned exercise.

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S1: And you fly to the fact that even as the surge was happening in India, like a lot of countries had a scientific task force on covid-19. Yeah, but that task force wasn’t meeting in the early days of this surge. Do we have any reasoning for why?

S2: Honestly, I’m not sure why, but from what we know is that the government’s priorities were different. Clearly, we were focusing more on the election rallies. We were focusing on the Kumbh Mela, which is the sort of big religious gathering and lack of mosques, crowds gathered there. And our minister spoke about how religion has a place above covid-19. And if you have faith, then Google 19 can do nothing. These are government officials in all of this. So I’m not so sure why. But this has been the trend. This has been the trend to not listen to subject area experts, the scientists, their advice has clearly not been taken into account from the very beginning. I already knew that Keith to that on the right and predicted that something like this is on the horizon. So honestly, I can understand I cannot fathom what stopped them from meeting and planning for this.

S1: You sound so frustrated with your own government. Yeah.

S2: Yeah, I am. I am. I mean, I am beyond frustrated. I’ve given up hope and just seeing what I see every day, eating what I eat every day. I mean, they can’t even acknowledge what is happening, so, you know, thinking beyond that is just if you can’t even acknowledge there’s a problem, what are you going to rectify it with? Like, what are you going to do to make sure that this problem is resolved?

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S1: Why do you say that, that the government hasn’t acknowledged what’s happening? Give me give me some examples of how you see that disconnect.

S2: For example, in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states that has been badly hit, the chief minister spoke about how there’s no shortage of oxygen, there’s no issue about beds. We have everything. There’s nothing to worry about cases actually going down now. So this is the kind of narrative that they create while on the other side, if someone does try to speak up, for example, there was one person yesterday who tweeted about getting an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather, who was really sick, and the government responded by filing an ad against him for spreading lies and misinformation.

S1: That’s a some kind of charge. Like a criminal charge.

S2: Yeah. And that the first information report.

S1: So man goes online looking for oxygen for his loved one. Yeah. And get slapped with a charge. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. That’s what happened for spreading rumors and lies. So that’s been the kind of crackdown the government does not want to talk about what the situation is on the ground. They’re very wary of the international coverage that India is getting instead of trying to actually focus energy on fixing things. Hmm. Yeah. So this this has been sort of the efforts have been to clamp down on real narratives from the ground and reporting and instead pretend that everything’s all right and everything’s good. And the way they’re doing it is not just through what ministers and officials are talking about and what they’re saying about the situation and how they’re pretending everything’s OK. But also the other things they’re doing is being testing, asking private labs to stop testing so that I mean, and then test them. Obviously, numbers are going to go down.

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S1: That’s so reminiscent of what happened here, where when President Trump is in charge, you had him saying, well, we’re doing so much more testing. That’s why the numbers are going up.

S2: Yeah, but it’s yeah, that’s something that’s been used also earlier. But now it’s just very explicit orders to go testing to stop private labs from taking tests.

S1: And because you don’t want to see the problem.

S2: Yeah. And even if you do get tested, sometimes you get your results in like a week or ten days. Until then, you’re either recovered or you died. That’s what’s happening.

S1: When we come back, what Shohat has seen firsthand inside India’s covid wards. Can you tell me about the the places you visited, because I know in the last couple of weeks you’ve been to hospitals and you’ve been to crematoriums and you’ve met people who are desperate. What have you seen?

S2: Yeah, there’s one incident where we went to this hospital in this district, which is in Gujarat. That’s a small town. And we went to the civil hospital there, which is the district level hospital. And there was one doctor who was taking care of a ward of 70 covid patients, all of them on oxygen support, one doctor, one young medical student, resident doctor, along with four or five nurses. And like every 10, 15 minutes, he was being called from one to another. Either someone was using oxygen, someone gasping for breath, couldn’t figure out what’s happening to them. And there weren’t enough nurses. So family members were tending to patients that were inside these wards. There was not really a segregation between the intensive care and no one intensive care or suspected forward and included patients because all of them had the same sort of clinical condition symptoms. All of them needed oxygen support, some of them even needed ventilation. But there was no ventilators.

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S1: I think you talked about how people were adjusting their own oxygen levels because there just weren’t enough staff to help

S2: them with it, so they’ve basically gotten sort of used to figuring that out themselves because there were like five, six ajoint wards. The doctors in one of the woods, you can’t call the attendant has to go and find. And if the if the other patient is sick or needs more care than the doctor is not going to be. And how long can you wait for a doctor or a nurse to come in? So people just started sort of fiddling with the dials themselves. The thing is, they might think they’re doing it right, but they might be messing it up as well. So perhaps either they have a pressure oxygen that’s too much or too low for them and that might damage their lungs even more. But they’re desperate. They want to do something. Attendants themselves, relatives. They want to do something like they’re seeing their loved one, their family member, wife, daughter or son, like young people and people in their 20s gasping for breath. There was a father, I remember, who was standing and crying and asking me if I can do something for them. And. Yeah, and

S1: they were asking you.

S2: Yeah, yeah. Because they were trying to secure some medication or but asking if there’s some other hospital that they can be taken to where they can be attended to. Well, better than this.

S1: What do you even say to that?

S2: I have to be honest. I have to be honest. I have to tell them that my role well, what I’m doing is to make sure that people know what’s happening. You know, if I had something if I had any thoughts, I would help you. But I really don’t. I don’t. And. The most I can do is make sure people know what’s happening. And it’s it’s you have to be honest and what else to be,

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S1: you chronicled this one moment that stood out to me because it was a quiet moment. A man came into the hospital. They weren’t able to test him for covid, but he clearly had covid symptoms and he died. Yeah. And his death was marked as a cardiac arrest. And it was this very small moment that kind of reveals the entire problem, which is we don’t even know how many covid patients there are, even when they’re in a hospital, even when they’re gasping for breath.

S2: Yeah, that’s for sure. Most people are dying before they get hospital. Most people are either dying inside their homes or in an ambulance or on the side of the road in an autorickshaw. This is where they’re dying. Most of them announced dead upon arrival. I’ve seen that quite a bit in my reporting. I mean, I don’t even know the figures that we have, the data that we have. I don’t I don’t even know where to begin talking about how fudged that data is. And it’s not even about being fudged. It’s about. In this whole chaos, how are they even keeping account at all of what’s happening when there are no tests, test results come if you do get tested, they come just 10 days later sometimes. So, yeah, we have no idea of how many people have actually died of it. We just know it’s a keest, hundreds in one city, not even talking about the state like hundreds of unreported deaths.

S1: You know, I noticed something when I was looking at some of the covid data for India that struck me, which is that some of the highest infection levels right now seem to be in West Bengal, and that is the state where the prime minister had been doing so much campaigning. There’s a an election there that’s really important to him, because if his party is able to secure a foothold in that state, it it just unlocks a lot of potential power. It’s it was something people didn’t think would necessarily happen. It’s a really diverse state that has traditionally been against his Hindu first agenda. And that election is still going on, which some people are saying is driving the infection rate up. I think results are expected in May. Yeah, but it made me wonder if there was a chance here that there would be political ramifications that we would actually know about quite soon for the prime minister. Given how he’s dealt with the covid crisis,

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S2: I mean, I would hope so. I can generally sense a level of disenchantment, disillusionment with the current regime. But there are some people who are still ready to push their narrative. What can the government do? Its own nuts? What do they do with this? And why this? What can what can they do? But I know people would do swear by him and his leadership. And I guess that’s what this government has done, which is image making, perception management, creating symbols out of these people in these larger than life symbols.

S1: In the last week, international allies have started offering all kinds of aid to India, vaccines and an oxygen, and I wonder if that gives you some sense that relief may be on its way.

S2: I mean, yes, of course, but I feel like this is not the worst of it, this the cases, everything is going to rise to an extent that the amount of support we get really not that job. So I feel like there’s sadly much more devastation to see before this gets better. I mean, until April 17, a prime minister was giving as addressing a rally in West Bengal. There was a crowd of unmasked faces cheering him on and he spoke about how amazing it is to see such a big gathering. He’s never seen such a big gathering before in his life. He himself was unmasked. And this is until April 17th.

S1: That was the same day you were in a hospital in his home state. Yeah. Watching people be turned away.

S2: Yeah, it’s crazy. Crazy image.

S1: How are you? How are you doing, because you’re there, you’re in the middle of all this, and I noticed that the last time you were kind of out reporting it was a week or two ago. Do you feel like you need to lock yourself down at this point?

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S2: I, I feel like staying at home doesn’t help much. I mean, it helps me deal better if I’m going out to voting. But the biggest worry and concern is about the people living around you and infecting other people, you know, passing on the virus to other people while you do your job. That’s always a problem, but. Locking yourself up doesn’t help like it’s sometimes. I mean, it does help everyone should be locking themselves up, but if I have to do my job and be on the ground reporting, then. Sometimes I feel like I’d rather do that than be here and be scared and be thinking about, you know, what’s going to happen to my family, to my friends, how is this going to go to how long will I avoid this?

S1: Geohot, Rana, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. I hope you and your family stay safe. Yeah, I hope so, too. Geohot Rahner writes for the caravan. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris tomorrow. Be sure to stay tuned to this feed for what next TBD. That’s our Friday show, all about technology. Lizzie O’Leary hosts it. I will catch you back here on Monday.