“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.