Earlier this month, Maitri Lakra, a 40-year-old from Delhi, was diagnosed with tongue cancer. The diagnosis had come after a long ordeal. Maitri is also HIV positive, and had been suffering from mouth ulcers for the last two years. They did not worry her initially because mouth ulcers are a common condition among people with HIV. However, the ulcer refused to heal and started to cause extreme pain, giving her sleepless nights since last May. Maitri and her husband, Najarius Lakra, started going to government hospitals in Delhi to get her relief. After ten long months of multiple tests and treatment, it was only on 9 March that she learnt about her cancer, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.
“She has not eaten in months due to the pain and has survived only on bare minimum liquids. For the last one month, her speech has also gone completely,” said Najarius. Maitri currently weighs only 30 kilograms and constantly feels weak.
At the time of her diagnosis, a doctor from the surgical-oncology department at AIIMS told her that the cancer was in its initial stages. She needed surgery as soon as possible to prevent it from growing into stage-3 or stage-4 cancer, which increase the lethality of the disease greatly. She was told that she was unlikely to get a date for her surgery before mid-July at AIIMS, because of the overload of patients at the hospital. The doctor, instead, referred her to another campus, the National Cancer Institute, AIIMS in Jhajjar in Haryana. Patients at NCI could be operated upon within a week or two, Maitri was told. On 16 March she went to NCI and underwent tests there, and was asked to come back ten days later.
In the week starting 16 March, state governments across India started to impose rules to minimise physical interaction between people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On 16 March, the union health ministry released an advisory that called for state administrations to either close down or restrict access to all places where large crowds normally congregate. Health facilities, too, began rolling back services that did not deal directly with COVID-19. On 22 March, Maitri received a message from the radiology department of AIIMS, Jhajjar stating, “All Radiology appointments are postponed in view of covid-19 crisis. You will be informed when bookings resume to take fresh appointment.” On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unanticipated nationwide lockdown that restricted movement and functionally sealed state borders. Maitri could no longer physically go to Jhajjar to request that she be treated urgently because of the severity of her condition. She could not approach other hospitals in the national capital either because most outpatient facilities had closed down.
Meanwhile, her condition kept deteriorating. On 30 March, Najarius told me, “She has been bleeding from tongue and has excruciating pain. We have been bringing her to AIIMS, Delhi’s emergency for the last three days. She is being given pain management.”