Rajnath Prasad Yadav, a migrant worker who returned home to Fulwaria village in Bihar’s Saran district on 25 May, died on 4 June after complaining of severe breathing issues. Upon his arrival at the village—which comes under the Garkha block in Saran—he went to the Utkramit Madhya Vidyalaya, a nearby government school, which served as a COVID-19 quarantine centre. According to accounts of two others who were quarantined with him—his nephew Ranjit Kumar and friend Dinesh Rai—and his cousin Lal Saheb Rai, who was employed at the centre, Yadav started feeling sick within two or three days. As he complained of feeling feverish, cough and breathlessness, a team of health workers visited the centre for a check-up and gave him medicine. According to Lal, on 1 June, the quarantine centre was shut down and everyone who was housed there, including Yadav, was sent back home without any explanation. At home, Yadav said he was feeling breathlessness and his symptoms worsened. He died three days later.
Yadav was tested for the virus only after his death. By all indications it was clear that he had contracted the coronavirus, Rinki, his 16-year-old daughter told me. On 10 June, Geeta Devi, Yadav’s wife, complained of breathlessness and had to be hospitalised as well. On 9 June and 11 June, respectively, Dr Madheveshwar Jha, the civil surgeon of Saran, and Subrat Kumar Sen, the district magistrate, confirmed to me that Yadav had COVID-19. But even till the morning of 11 June, his family did not have the test report, Ranjit said.
In all, the administration and health system in Garkha appeared to be callous and grossly ill-prepared to combat the virus, even months after the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in India. Moreover, the events leading to Yadav’s death highlighted the perils of an ill-planned lockdown.
I had met Yadav exactly a month before this story was published while visiting Khizrabad, a congested cluster of houses in Delhi which was occupied by thousands of workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for a reporting assignment. Several residents, including Yadav, said that they have been unemployed and struggling for food due to the lockdown. Yadav told me the workers decided that “if there is no work, then it would be better if we could reach our native place.” In another report for The Caravan, I mentioned that on 23 May, Yadav began an arduous journey back home via the central government’s Shramik Special trains. Dinesh, who was with him during the journey, said, “We were without food, without water and in a route that was not known to us.” Yadav also told me he was distressed. “It was a painful experience,” he said. “We never thought that any train journey would be so difficult.”
Yadav, along with some other natives of the block who lived with him in Khizrabad, reached Garkha on 25 May. According to Dinesh, who was a part of the group, they were screened for COVID-19 at a local government hospital and were then asked which quarantine centre they would prefer. They chose the government school, as it was close to their homes, and moved there around 11 am that day. Dinesh said that social distancing and all precautions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus were being followed at the centre.
According to accounts of three people who were present at the centre, Yadav showed symptoms of COVID-19 during his stay there. Yadav’s nephew Ranjit Rai, who had returned to the village from Bengaluru around the same time and was among the people who were quarantined, said, “Uncle was not well at all there. I saw him with fever and breathing problems.” Lal, a caretaker at the school who doubles as a cook, said that Yadav told him that he had a sore throat and felt feverish within two or three days of his arrival. He informed Manoj Kumar Singh, the headmaster, who was in charge of the centre, about his cousin’s health after which a doctor from the block-level government health centre visited the school. Lal and Dinesh could not identify the doctor. The doctor took Yadav’s temperature and gave him some medicine, specifying that he would be taken to the hospital if his condition did not improve. Yadav’s symptoms subsided briefly but the breathlessness persisted, Ranjit said. “He was trying to show that he was healthy,” he added.