“I do not know what has happened to your village,” my mother told me during a call on 25 April. She was speaking of the Dhanaura Silvernagar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, where I lived with my family till the age of 22. “News of death is coming from everywhere,” she said. My mother was among the many family members, friends and associates who told me that they were witnessing an unprecedented number of deaths and grief in my village. About fifteen people in Dhanaura Silvernagar have died within ten days, they said. While not all those who died were tested for COVID-19, a new-found fear of the virus has besieged their lives amid an unsparing second wave of the pandemic.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown to control the novel coronavirus last year, many people did not think the pandemic would last for so long. In fact, the virus did not impact my village much. “Last time, people were taking it as a joke or trying black magic to shoo it away,” Bhola Pandit, a resident, told me. “Now, the situation is out of control. So many people have died in the village, no one can believe it. There is absolute silence in the entire village. No one visits anyone’s house; people are not meeting each other. The village is in terror; this virus has gripped our village.” Pandit mentioned that his father has a cough. “We are doing home remedies, ayurveda, et cetera,” he said. “We make sure he keeps a mask on,” he added. Pandit said he knew of eight cases of severe patients in the village. He added that many people have bought electric machines for steam inhalation.
Residents told me that last year, members of the administration used to come to get people tested for COVID-19 and look after their treatment. But this year, they said, they were left to manage everything on their own. To get tested for COVID-19, Dhanaura Silvernagar residents have to travel 15 or 20 kilometres to go to either Baraut city or Baghpat city on their own. I could not find any official data of how many cases are there in my village. Even a daily count of the number of cases in the whole district is hard to find on the Uttar Pradesh government’s websites and social media accounts. However, it is clear that the second wave of the pandemic has brutally hit the state—Uttar Pradesh has reported over 28,000 cases each day over the past week.
Even so, panchayat elections are being held across all the districts of the state. Dhanaura Silvernagar went to polls on 19 April, in the second phase of the four-phase elections. Rajat Kumar is among the top contenders of our village. He is the son of Ramesh Swami, an elderly man who had served as the pradhan years ago. Ramesh unsuccessfully contested in the last four panchayat elections as well but emerged as the first-runner up each time. This year, Ramesh led a strong campaign for his son. He died two days after the polls.
It was after the polling that news of deaths in the village began pouring in, according to Tejram, a middle-aged resident. “This escalation has happened after the polls,” he told me on 26 April. “Two people in my neighbourhood itself are on oxygen support. God only knows if they will survive,” he said. “Two galis that have many patients of corona have been sealed. My gali too—eight people have contracted the virus.”
Tejram was among the people who told me that nearly fifteen people have died in the last ten days. “I have never seen so many deaths together, the way it is happening right now,” he said. “I usually go to Baraut to work as a labourer. But I am not able to go now, out of fear.” He told me that people have stopped stepping out of the house unless they have important work. “Pata nahi humaare gaaon ko kis ki nazar lag gayi hai”—I don’t know who has cast an evil eye on our village—he said.
A couple of day before speaking to Tejaram, my friend Povindra Rana, called me. He told me on call that Kaushalya Devi, my Hindi teacher in tenth-standard, had died due to COVID-19. My mind immediately went back to how inspiring and impressive Kaushalya ma’am was back when I was in school. She was 62 years old and had retired on 4 April this year. I was told that ma’am was the second COVID-19 casualty of her family in four days. Her husband and son were in quarantine as they had also tested positive.
Povindra, who is a farmer, told me that he is generally occupied with work in April each year. But not this year. His younger brother, Ashok Rana, also tested positive for the virus. Ashok is about 30 years old and has two children. The brothers live in the same house with their family of 12. “Now we are scared even at home,” Povindra said. “His reports show his lungs are 14-percent infected,” he told me. “I am not able to see my brother in this condition. Just a few days ago, my wife’s cousin died in Delhi after contracting COVID-19. Since then, there has been more terror in my house. We do not understand what will happen.”
Multiple people, including Povindra and Tejaram told me that the news of shortage of oxygen and beds added to their fear of COVID-19. “I watch the news about the condition of the hospitals and get more scared,” Povindra said. On the morning of 26 April, Ashok had to be admitted to a hospital in Baraut. Povindra told me that he saw patients from Delhi also at the hospital.
Dilshad—another friend, who is about 40 years old—told me that his father, Islam suffered from chest pain on the night of 16 April. Islam was in his late sixties and ran a grocery shop in the village. The next morning, Dilshad took him in a car to many hospitals in the neighbouring Meerut district. But Dilshad said that all hospitals refused to admit his father, saying that they were overburdened by COVID-19 cases. At around 2 pm that day, Islam died in the car. “Every day, we hear of one or two people dying,” Dilshad told me. “We are not understanding what is happening.”
Anuj Kumar, my brother, who is a law student, told me that some people in the village had gone to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and tested positive when they came back. “There must be very few households without even a single person with a fever,” he told me. “And this is a big village.” He recalled how the most awful thing they had heard in the last lockdown was of one death—a boy from the village who worked in Ghaziabad had killed himself on being tested positive. But this time, Anuj told me, the whole atmosphere of the village was grim. “Never before have so many people died in our village at the same time,” he said. “The condition of the village is not alright.”
My mother, too, felt the same. “If you listen to the news, it is taking away young people, people of all castes. No one lets their children play outside,” she said. “Pata nahi kis tarah ki bimaari faili hai, jo logo pe seedha attack karti hai”—We do not understand what kind of disease has spread, which directly attacks people.