“She had a great desire to give her eyes to someone to see the world and inspire others,” Nasir Mohammad, a 47-year-old resident of Dwarka, told me about Priya Nasir, his recently deceased wife. “She took a pledge about donating her eyes in 2001. She even made me promise that I would see her pledge fulfilled.” Priya died on 17 April, amid the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. On the same day, Nasir, along with Poonam Tyagi, an activist who works with visually impaired people, approached four eye banks, including the eye bank at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. However, none of them allowed Priya to donate her eyes because no elective surgeries were allowed during the second phase of the lockdown.
Incongruent and conflicting guidelines by India’s health ministry and key organisations under it have brought India’s eye-donation programme to a complete halt during the lockdown. During this period, doctors I spoke estimated that several thousands of people who wished to donate their eyes to help solve India’s growing problem of corneal blindness, have been unable to because of a lack of government initiative. Senior ophthalmologists based in Delhi told me they were unable to honour the last wishes of several patients who had pledged their eyes for donation. Activists and doctors said that the continued lack of clear guidelines coupled with poor central funding for eye donation shows the government’s apathy for both eye donors and the corneally blind.
In April 2019, Priya was diagnosed with an advanced stage of lung cancer. She had been regularly going to Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Hospital in Rohini for her treatment. “She was doing well with the treatment with her regular follow up, check-up with the doctor and medication,” Nasir said. “However, the situation started changing after 22 March, when all out-patient services in all hospitals were suspended due to COVID-19 and lockdown across the country.” On 9 April, Priya was admitted to Aakash hospital, in Dwarka, with severe pain and breathlessness. She died in her second week at the hospital. The clock on her donation immediately began ticking. A donor’s eyes need to be donated within six hours of their death for it to be viable for implantation.
Throughout her last two weeks, Nasir told me, Priya was determined to ensure that her eyes would be donated after she passed away. Priya worked closely with Tyagi toward this end. On 11 May, Tyagi wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for the process of eye-donation to be allowed during the lockdown. On 13 May, she received a terse reply from the directorate general of health services under the health ministry, which said, “Your concern for eye banks during the lockdown for increase in eye donation for control of corneal blindness in the country is highly appreciable. But due to the Corona Pandemic the collection of Corneas from those who have died at home (Status of corona infection being unknown) carries a risk of getting Corona infected Corneas and its transmission to the recipient.”
On 4 May, another man in Tyagi’s locality who had opted for eye donation died. “It’s very sad to see that in a country where there are so many blind people looking for a light of relief in their life and where people like Priya, who actively pledge their eyes for a cause, eye-donation takes a back seat and priority is being given to liquor shops,” Tyagi said. She was referring to an order, issued by the Delhi government that allowed liquor shops to reopen from 4 May while elective surgeries still remained banned.