Dispatch From India, Where COVID Corpses Burn Around The Clock

The raging COVID-19 epidemic, combined with an acute shortage of oxygen, has created a nightmare scenario in places like Nashik, in the northern part of Maharashtra state.

Burning pyres at a crematorium in New Delhi
Burning pyres at a crematorium in New Delhi
Nazia Sayed

NASHIK — Neeta waits patiently for her number to be called, so that she can bid a final farewell to her father and go back home. It's already been four hours since she came to the Amar Dham crematorium, where there is a backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated. One of those belongs to Neeta's father, Yashwant Koladkar, who died in a hospital in Nashik, due to lack of oxygen, after fighting a severe COVID-19 infection for six days.

The cremation staff has been working according to a numbering system. "Mera number nahi aaya ab tak (My number hasn't come yet)," says Neeta, who seems to be frustrated now. More than the grief of losing her father, it's the wait that's troubling her. She just wants to get it over with and leave.

The queue to cremate is a daily sight over here. At any given time, 10 or more pyres burn while others queue up for the last rites of their loved ones. Most are COVID-19-related deaths. As cases and deaths mount in Maharashtra, Nashik is no different.

The records at the crematorium mention at least 100 bodies being disposed of per day, of which at least 60 are coronavirus-related deaths. And yet, this does not reflect in the government records, which show a daily count of nine or 10 COVID deaths in city and a total of 57 in the district.

We ran out of space, and now we allow the pyres on pavements, open grounds, even the banks of the river.

The crematoriums are so overburdened that they issue token numbers and a booking system for the dead bodies. Amar Dham crematorium, which is the largest in the city, has now allowed the bodies to be burnt on the pavements and roads inside the cremation ground, which has speeded up the process. But then it ran out of firewood.

Nashik is an old pilgrimage town that now is in the throes of change, with a burgeoning wine industry and new developments coming up rapidly. The population stands at over 2 million, making it one of the biggest towns in the state. Like everywhere else, it has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic.

Nashik also has one of the few female morticians around. Sunita Patil has been cremating the dead here for the last 20 years, as did her father and grandfather did before her. She took up the family profession despite the fact that women are not allowed to do this job. There were protests from traditionalists, but she struck the course.

"I haven't seen anything of this sort in my 20 years of service. Earlier we used to cremate about 20 or 25 bodies on a given day but now there are nearly 100 bodies a day. We ran out of space, and now we allow the pyres on pavements, open grounds, even the banks of the river," she says.

Cemetery workers taking a break — Photo: Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

"My job is to lift the dead bodies and place them on the pyre, wash them, apply ghee and perform their last rites," Sunita adds. "I learned it from my father. None of my other 10 siblings wanted to do this job. But I want to carry my fathers legacy forward and would like my daughter to do so too."

When 24 people died at the Zakir Husain Municipal Hospital due to a leakage in the oxygen tank on April 21, Sunita cremated 13 of them at the Amar Dham crematorium.

Just outside the cremation ground, ambulance driver Manoj Patil had just brought another set of bodies to the crematorium, his fifth trip to Amar Dham that day. Manoj is a wireman in the Nashik Civil Hospital but now is seen driving ambulances and dropping corpses to the cremation ground.

"My ambulance driver ran away. He got scared that he will get infected, so he refused to come for work. I even offered him a raised salary but even that did not help. As a result I have started driving the ambulance," says Manoj.

The situation is very grim.

On an average day, he drops at least 25 to 30 bodies to the crematorium. He says he has come across cases where relatives have abandoned their COVID-19 positive family members and are running away.

"We get calls about dead bodies lying abandoned in apartments, hospitals and roads," Manoy says. "In such a situation, we take the body bags and pack the bodies and then bring them to the crematoriums. My uncle also drives an ambulance and he drops the Muslim bodies to the kabristan while I ferry the Hindu bodies to the shamshaan ghat."

For the past few weeks, Maharashtra has been dealing with a severe shortage of oxygen. Nashik is no different.

In hospitals, relatives wait for their near and dear ones to be admitted. The private hospitals here have run out of oxygen and asked their patients to get themselves shifted to another hospital. A delegation of 20 doctors visited the district magistrate and collector of Nashik last Thursday to plead for oxygen.

A worker fills oxygen cylinders to supply to hospitals for COVID-19 patients — Photo: Abhisek Saha/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press

Dr. Shodhan Gondkar runs a 50-bed hospital in Nashik city. At least 48 of those patients require oxygen, but the supply he had would have lasted only for two hours. Left with no option, he asked the relatives of the patients to fetch the cylinders themselves.

"I'm helpless. What can I do?" he says. "I have 12 patients on ventilators who are critical and won't survive if the oxygen supply runs out. Even the rest require oxygen. The situation is very grim."

Dr. Gondkar goes on to say that there are about 150 private hospitals in Nashik and nearly 80% of them have run out of oxygen. "The shortage is not only because of the increase in demand for oxygen but also due to the O2 supplying companies who have now started selling their supplies to hospitals which can give them a higher price," he explains.

The government hospitals in Nashik are no better. Though they manage to get their oxygen and medicine supplies, they have no beds left. In Zakir Husain NMC hospital, one of the biggest in Nashik, a board announces there are no beds available.

Naresh Raut, who lost his mother in the oxygen leakage incident in the same hospital, says he regrets getting her admitted here.

He says, "When I admitted my mother she was made to sit in the hospital compound, on a wheelchair with her oxygen cylinder for two days. At nights they would just lay her on a stretcher on the ground and leave her there. On the day the leakage took place, she was given a bed. Unfortunately she died in the incident as the main oxygen line was shut down due to the leak."

In the rural areas around Nashik, the situation is worse. On patient, 35-year-old Arun Mali, died on the steps of a hospital in Chandwad. He needed oxygen but was turned away by three hospitals. Finally he reached Chandwad Trauma Centre where he was asked to wait outside and complete his admission formalities. Within 15 minutes of reaching the hospital, he died on the staircase as his wife looked on helplessly.

The city has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the cases that have risen from 1.28 lakh at the start of March to 2.77 lakh till Sunday. On Sunday, 4,797 suspected COVID-19 patients were admitted in the city out of which 2,931 tested positive. Eleven of them died. And it's getting worse.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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