Breaking Point

The second COVID-19 wave brings death and despair

On 23 April, relatives carry the dead body of a COVID-19 patient at the Seemapuri crematorium in Delhi.
Photographs and text by Shahid Tantray
01 June, 2021

At the Ramnath Ghela Smashan Bhumi in Surat, over a dozen people were waiting in line to receive tokens to cremate their dead. Workers from the Khan Trust Foundation, which had been contracted by the municipal corporation to manage operations at the city’s crematoria, continued to bring in bodies, followed by grieving relatives. The crematorium was originally equipped with four gas furnaces, but the heat from constant burning over the past week had melted the grills on two of them, rendering them dysfunctional. To manage the rush, thirty additional pyres had been set up in an adjacent field—around forty bodies were burnt that day.

It was 14 April. I was in Surat with my colleague Chahat Rana to report on how the city’s hospitals and crematoria were being overwhelmed by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the New Civil Hospital, we found a queue that was around three hundred metres long. Hundreds of people had lined up to buy remdesivir injections, which were being sold at a subsidised rate. A middle-aged man broke down in front of me; he had been waiting in line for five hours to buy medicines for his son. Family members who knew their relatives had died of COVID-19 waited outside the hospital, begging for the dead bodies to be returned to them.

We visited three other crematoria in the city. It became increasingly evident that the state government was doing its best to keep the true number of COVID-19 deaths under wraps. Although official data said that 215 people had died in Surat over the past month, the register at the Ashwini Kumar Smashan listed 160 cremations of COVID-19 patients on 14 April alone. Increasing demand had heavily inflated the price of firewood and biers.

Shahid Tantray is a multimedia reporter at The Caravan. He tweets at @shahidtantray