With no health infrastructure amid COVID-19 second wave, fear and death stalk UP villages

COVID-19 patients and their families await oxygen cylinders at the LLR Hospital, in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur city, on 20 April 2021. Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister who is commonly referred to as Adityanath, has repeatedly said there is no shortage of tests, medicines, oxygen, and hospital beds, but the narratives from the state’s rural areas contradict every claim. PTI
14 May, 2021

“There is no house in my village that does not have sick people,” Sanjit Prasad, a resident of Dhanoli village in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, told me on 1 May. In the preceding days, I spoke to dozens of villagers spread across ten districts of the state, and heard the same refrain each time. As the disastrous second wave of COVID-19 rips through India, the hinterland, which had escaped the first wave relatively unscathed, is witnessing a crisis whose magnitude is still unfolding, especially after the recent panchayat elections held from 15 to 29 April. All the villagers reported no access to healthcare, including COVID-19 tests, either due to lack of infrastructure or denial of services in overcrowded urban centres. They said there was a significant spike in the numbers of deaths due to symptoms very much like COVID-19; and a profound lack of reliable information. Across the districts, very few had had access to vaccination and there was significant distrust of the vaccines.

In the midst of this public-health emergency, there was another devastating impact of the disease, often overlooked by news reports—the breakdown of social and community bonds as fear and panic fracture support systems in these co-dependent communities. Ramesh Kumar, a resident of Reksa Kol village in the Sant Kabirnagar district, told me how families were finding it difficult to even hold cremations as per the prescribed rituals because neighbours and friends were hesitant to help for fear of contracting the virus. “A 28-year-old man in Uttarawal died on 29 April,” Kumar said. “His own family did not come forward to carry the body.” He added, “In cities, you don’t care who your neighbour is but in villages, community is very important. Last time no one cared about the virus but it’s different this time because so many are dying. People are scared, everyone is looking out for themselves and are afraid to help.”

Even as Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister who is commonly referred to as Adityanath, insists that there is no shortage of tests, medicines, oxygen, and hospital beds, and that the state’s fatality rate is 1.4 percent, the narratives from the rural areas contradict every claim. More importantly, the disease seems to be burning through the countryside without a trace in official records.

Out of the 12 villages I covered across ten districts, not a single one had a testing centre or access to COVID-19 tests within 20 kilometres. As a result, majority of the sick people were not getting tested, the villagers told me. Every single village had multiple cases of sick people showing COVID-19 symptoms such as viral fever, cough, cold and breathlessness—in Tikwapur of the Kanpur Dehat district, this figure was as high as 85 percent of the population on 30 April. A report in a local paper counted 30 deaths in Tikwapur alone from 15 April to 13 May. None of the villages had a working primary health centre, and only two reported the presence of a local doctor—every single patient or families of people who had fallen sick had to go to the nearest town or city.

In most cases, families had to struggle, mostly without success, to even get tested let alone find admission in hospitals equipped with oxygen and other critical services. Barring the village of Basauli in Chandauli district, every village reported between six to 11deaths from symptoms that resembled COVID-19 in the last ten days of April. In almost ninety percent of the deaths, the person had not even gotten tested for the virus, so none of these deaths are part of the official COVID-19 death toll in the state. To top this, misinformation about hospitals, vaccines, medicines and the disease itself, was contributing to a growing sense of panic and dread in the villages.

Ramesh, from Sant Kabirnagar, is a student at the Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow. He told me that the people of his village are scared and it’s mostly because of lack of basic information.  The village’s population is about 1,500. “People in my village think that those who got vaccinated are dying,” Ramesh said. When I spoke to him on 30 April, one person from his village and two from the adjoining village of Uttarawal had died after developing COVID-19 like symptoms—onset of fever, cough and cold followed by severe breathlessness—and all three had been vaccinated.

Ramesh said that the fevers and colds started increasing dramatically in his village after the panchayat elections held on 15 April. “Symptoms of corona are visible but they are not undergoing tests.” He told me that within 15 days following the elections, “at least 11 people died of these symptoms within a three kilometre radius of my village. But the government and administration do not care who is dying and who is living. The exact figures of death are not coming out. “

In an earlier story for The Caravan, I had reported that 15 people died in the village of Dhanaura in Baghpat district between 16 to 26 April. Since then, the village has reported one or two deaths daily till 13 May. Vijay Tomar of Sirsali, another village in Baghpat district, told me that his entire village was ill when I spoke to him on 8 May. “But no one wants to go to the hospitals after seeing the conditions there. They think it’s better to stay at home, isolate as much as you can and take home remedies and basic medicines.” He explained, “There is no proper system in the hospitals. In the last five days, ten people of my village have lost their lives after going to the hospital.” Tomar told me that most of the people of his village are sleeping under peepal and neem trees—the belief is that the trees will help them get oxygen.

Chaudhary Vineet Arya of Baghpat’s Kheda Hataan village said there was no house in his village that did not have at least one person suffering from a viral fever, when I spoke to him on 1 May. He had just lost his grandfather to COVID-19. “My uncle was admitted at the JP Hospital in Delhi and had corona. On 13 April, after coming from there, we went to the Baghpat Collectorate Hospital to get ourselves tested. My grandfather tested positive and the rest of the family was all negative. We first isolated grandfather in the house, but when his situation started deteriorating, he was admitted to the Corona Center at Khekra on 14 April. After staying in the centre for six days, his condition started deteriorating, so they referred him to Meerut.” Arya’s grandfather passed away two days later.

Satinder Singh of Kotwa Narayanpur village in Ballia district told me that more than half the people in his village were showing symptoms of coronavirus, when I spoke to him on 30 April. “But there is no arrangement of anything, so people are not getting treatment.” Singh had developed body aches a few days before I spoke to him. “I thought not to lose courage. I live with my two young children, parents and brothers, and his family. We have a family of ten.” Singh’s entire family came down with fever but not a single one has been tested. Singh said that between from 21 April to 28 April, at least seven people had died of COVID-19 symptoms in his village. He, too, said that the incidences of viral fever in his village started increasing a few days after the panchayat elections.

Singh said that the local doctor of his village is now the god of his people as there is no other solution. Based on the doctor’s recommendation, the people of the village are taking paracetamol, vitamin-C and antibiotics and some are drinking kadha—a home remedy for boosting immunity made from herbs and spices—three or three times a day.

Dr. Ramkhilavan Rajbhar, who lives in Kotwa village in Banaras district, was a doctor in the Ayurveda department at Banaras Hindu University’s Institute of Medical Science before retirement in 2015. “I am in my 70s and I have served in a government hospital, yet I have not been vaccinated.” Rajbhar has not left the house for the last two months. The reason for this is that he does not trust the government that if he was ill, he would be able to get access to a medical facility. He told me that there were no tests being conducted in his village. “The government is only working on paper, not on the ground.” He mentioned the case of a 50-year-old resident of his village who fell sick. “At first he was not admitted by the hospital. Then somehow he was admitted by getting a recommendation. But he did not get oxygen and he died.”

According to Rajbhar, at least 12 people have died sudden deaths in his village from 19 April to 30 April—all of them had COVID-19 symptoms. “There is no village in Banaras where death hasn’t come.” According to him, during the first wave, there were barely any deaths in the region but now “people are dying within days of falling sick everywhere.” According to the state government, the whole district recorded 227 deaths from 1 April to 7 May. However, according to news reports which have tallied deaths from crematoriums, the Manikarnika Ghat at Banaras alone has cremated approximately 1,500 bodies with COVID-19 protocols between 15 and 23 April.

Pankaj Yadav of Tikawapur village in Kanpur Dehat district, who is pursuing law from Lucknow University, said that the situation in his village is grave. “There is no house in which people do not suffer from cough, fever or cold.” Pankaj told me that in the last week of April, 12 people died in his village. On 30 April, the day I spoke to him, five more people had succumbed to symptoms that strongly suggested COVID-19. According to a news report in Dainik Bhaskar, the local authorities of Kanpur district had reported 224 deaths from 25 April to 5 May while cremations as per COVID-19 protocols during this period numbered 871.

Pankaj was furious with the government. “If a complaint is made to the government, then they will put that person in jail but not listen to the complaint.” He said that his village had “absolutely no arrangements”—no sanitisation, isolation centre, testing, medical worker or even access to medicines. “There are about six people in the village who are in critical condition but are at home.” Like other villages in Uttar Pradesh, the situation in Pankaj’s village has deteriorated after the panchayat elections. Pankaj said that in the absence of government assistance, people were treating themselves by drinking a decoction of hot water, black pepper and a syrup of celery.

Basauli village in Chandauli district was the only village that did not report a death toll over the last three weeks. Vinod Giri, a resident of the village told me, “This time the people of the village are more alert than the first wave. People are taking it seriously and coming out less or are wearing masks and keeping distance.” He said that there was no news of anyone dying in the village “but fever is coming in all the houses. But none of the people have gotten tested. People are scared.” He also added that there had been no vaccinations in his village as of 30 April.

Manish Balyan of Soram village in Muzaffarnagar is a yoga teacher. He told me that a viral fever had swept through his village just after the panchayat elections. He added that between 19 to 30 April at least ten people had died in his village. “A few days ago, on 22 April, a BJP-backed candidate Samrat Baliyan died from Corona,” Balyan said. “He was 34 years old. He is survived by his wife, two young girls, a younger brother and a parent.” Balyan said that among the ten deaths, three were from one family alone—a 32-year-old man named Tinku, his mother, and grandmother.

Prasad, from Gorakhpur, told me that there had been several deaths in his village in the past week and “the same is the condition of every village in Gorakhpur.” Prasad had tested positive for COVID-19 on 14 April. He said that he did not tell his family about his report for five days so that they would not get upset and started living separately. “When my condition improved and the weakness subsided, I told the people of the house that I had corona,” he said. When I spoke to Prasad, on 1 May, he said that the primary health centre near the village has been closed for the last ten days. “In 2001, a 100-bed hospital was built, but it has not been inaugurated till now. Today, even in such dire need is not being opened.” According to a news report in Dainik Bhaskar, the local authorities of the district were undercounting deaths—the district had reported 28 deaths from 25 April to 5 May while cremations as per COVID-19 protocols during this period numbered 626.

Dinesh Patel of Gadhora village in Prayagraj said that there is an outbreak of viral fever in the village. “In my house, I, my wife and my two young children have all fallen prey to it,” Patel said. “Within a week, six people have died in my village. My aunt was among the three people who died on the 22nd night.” He said that when one of his neighbours died on 27 April, people were so scared that nobody came to help. “This would never happen in our villages. The web of panic has gripped everyone and no one wants to help, which is something new for us.” He added, “When we reached the Jhunsi Chhatnag Ghat with his body, it was 8 pm and 20 bodies were being cremated there. A worker there told us that 108 people were cremated there that day. We were there till about midnight and people were still coming with bodies.”

Lalta Prasad Yadav, the block chief of Avrail village in Jaunpur, told me on 1 May that the condition of his village was very bad. “The situation has worsened after the elections,” Lalta said. “There is no house in the village that is not vulnerable to fever. But there has been no investigation.” According to Lalta, there is no arrangement of oxygen, beds and anything else in the village and “the sick people are wandering from here to there.” He said, “At Ramghat in Jaunpur, there is barely any space left to burn corpses. People are cremating bodies on the banks of every river, Gomti, Sai.” Lalta claimed that “At least 300 people are dying every day in Jaunpur, but the government is hiding the figures.” Lalta told me that there had been four deaths from COVID-19 symptoms in his village alone on 1 May, while the official figure for the whole district was one death for that day.

Balyan, of Soram village, said that with no help from the state government, the condition of the villages was worsening because people were now afraid of helping one another. “This time is important for agricultural cultivation, and wheat harvesting is done at this time.” He added, “But people are scared to help and are staying away from each other.”