Viral Images

The role of photography in documenting India’s COVID-19 disaster

A drone photograph of mass cremations of COVID-19 victims at Delhi’s Old Seemapuri ground by the Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui. It was one of the first to visualise the massive scale of the crisis. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
31 May, 2021

A distant, top-angle view shows a tightly packed housing tenement and an empty plot adjacent to it. The plot is scattered with incandescent spots—the brightest of these resembles a bonfire. If you look long enough, in the darker areas you can see fires that are dying out, with the last embers glowing next to blocks of wood and circles of ash. This is a drone photograph of the cremations of COVID-19 victims at Delhi’s Old Seemapuri ground by the Reuters photographer Danish Siddiqui.

As a brutal second wave of COVID-19 swept through the capital in April, this image was one of the first to visualise the massive scale of the crisis. While a still photograph typically displays a particular moment, this image evokes a period of time, a continuous cycle of burning funeral pyres. It had begun to circulate widely across social media on 22 April, amid desperate calls for oxygen, hospital beds and ventilators. It pointed at a reality that everyone had begun to fear: that graveyards and crematoria were overflowing. The composition also expands our view beyond the crematorium. These pyres were burning next to crammed colonies, whose residents had no choice but to breathe the rising smoke from the dead. While the living looked on in horror at the growing death count, what became increasingly clear was the absence of the state in managing the crisis.

For months, the Narendra Modi government turned a deaf ear to panicked warnings from the doctors and health professionals that things had the potential to spin out of control. In January, Modi declared that India had emerged victorious against the coronavirus. In March, newspapers carried advertisements inviting pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela, where millions congregated. Modi stretched out his campaigning for elections in West Bengal, boasting on 17 April about the crowds that had showed up to watch him speak. Three days earlier, the state had recorded its highest spike in new cases thus far. Just days after scores of patients died in hospitals in Maharashtra and Delhi for lack of oxygen, the solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, denied in court that there was an oxygen shortage. The dissonance between such claims and reality was visible in images as well—photographs of overwhelmed hospitals and mounting deaths were circulating widely at the same time as images of pilgrims taking a dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela.

The denialism, lies and underreporting of deaths is now routine. The government has failed to maintain credible data on the COVID-19 crisis since the pandemic began. In September last year, when asked about the number of migrant labourers who had died as a result of a hastily planned lockdown, the government said that “no such data is maintained.” That same month, it repeated this response when it came to the deaths of frontline healthcare workers. This year, the union health minister, Harsh Vardhan, thanked these very “COVID warriors” in leading India to an “unprecedented victory” over the virus. So it was no surprise that the official number of deaths in the second wave also did not align with the reality journalists and photographers were documenting. Ashish K Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, was one of many who spoke of the mismatch between official numbers and the facts emerging from crematoria. “You can ignore, fail to test for, or undercount whatever disease you want,” he tweeted. “But you can’t ignore the dead.”