On 27 April, the village of Titoli in Haryana’s Rohtak district witnessed at least nine cremations in a single day. On 5 May, the entire village, which has a population of 13,000, was declared a containment zone after local media reported that there had been 28 “mysterious” deaths in two days. Most of the dead had been suffering from fever, coughs and colds. But when a fellow reporter and I visited Titoli on 17 May, there was no sign of the village being a restricted zone, and the death toll had increased further. A list maintained by the village chowkidaar, or guard noted that there have been 58 deaths in the village between 25 April and 25 May. The only COVID-19 facility in the village, a day-care centre, was empty, and it had no equipment. The only staff member on duty, a doctor, had been appointed on 12 May, and he told me he was “here just to prescribe medicines.”
As I spoke to the residents, smoke billowed from a pyre at one of the three cremation grounds in the village and the dread was palpable. “There have been too many deaths. After so many deaths, there is absolute panic in the village,” Ashok Kumar, a 49-year-old, told me. But alongside the panic, there was grief, and immense anger towards the state government, the administration and private hospitals. All the residents I spoke to, including the village chief, said that neither the state government nor the local administration had done anything to help them. All of them complained of a lack of access to and shortage of beds, oxygen, medicines and critical care in public and private facilities. There was a marked distrust of government facilities. There were also widespread complaints of exploitation and over-charging by private hospitals and pharmacies—one of the families had paid Rs 25,000 for a vial of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir against the printed rate of Rs 3,400.
Various media outlets have reported varying numbers of deaths in the village over the past month—ranging from 40 to 60. Ram Niwas’s list noted all the names of the dead, their addresses, date and cause of death, and place of death, among other details. In this list, from 25 April to 25 May, only 10 deaths were noted as COVID-19 deaths. The reasons for death marked in the remaining 48 cases were as arbitrary as “dhadkan tej”—fast heartbeat, “bimaar”—sick, and even “achanak”—suddenly. At least 22 were noted to have died of “fever” and several more of “khaansi-bukhar,” or cough and fever. A list maintained by a nurse in the health department, who works at a local dispensary, noted that there had been 42 deaths between 1 April and 17 May, of which 10 were marked as COVID-19 deaths, and the rest were attributed to similar categories as those in the guard’s list. The nurse, who did not want to be named, showed me the list—even in this list, fever was marked as the cause of death in at least 18 cases.
Meanwhile, the state authorities have consistently insisted that the situation in the village was under control. On 8 May, the state health minister Anil Vij told Aaj Tak that reports of high numbers of COVID-19 deaths in Titoli were “wrong” and that the deaths “were not from COVID-19.” The sub-divisional magistrate, Rakesh Saini, refused to respond despite repeated attempts to contact him. The chief medical officer of Rohtak, Dr Anil Birla, deflected queries regarding the deaths and the high prevalence of COVID-19 symptoms listed as the cause of death. Birla insisted that the state machinery was providing help, and “isolation centres have been set up in every village now,” but the situation in Titoli was different. “The fire in this cremation ground is visible almost every day and if not here, it is there at the two other cremation sites in the village,” Ram Kishan, a resident, told me.