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First Person: Panic as COVID-19 ‘tsunami’ hits India

The number of new infections in India is tipping over 300,000 per day and more than 200,000 have died from the infection, although many there believe the figure could be a lot higher.

Anshu Sharma, works for the UN News Hindi service and has filed this personal account, from her base in New Delhi, about living in the shadow of the pandemic.

UN News
Anshu Sharma of UN News Hindi pictured on a pre-pandemic visit to UN Headquarters in New York.

“When COVID-19 began spreading in India in March 2020, no one really understood the gravity of the situation, but today, more than a year later the pandemic has taken an ugly turn impacting all of us, not least my own family.

As a reporter for UN News, I began as a detached observer charting the impact of COVID-19 across South Asia. But that changed when a member of my family passed away due to a delay in treatment caused by an overwhelmed and panic-stricken health service. It was a desperately sad and surreal time for my family as we consoled each other in lockdown.

Around this time, my cousin was stranded in Nigeria; we had been trying to bring him home for months and in July we succeeded and suddenly, we had a ray of hope amidst the gloom.

But really testing times were yet to come

He began quarantine in a hotel for 14-days, as per the rules, but developed a fever and was rushed to hospital. Before the doctors could diagnose his condition, he passed away due to multiple organ failure. We learnt later that he had died of malaria. Though indirectly, once again, coronavirus had snatched another member of my family.

But really testing times were yet to come.

A few months later, in September, I went to visit my elderly mother and brother in another city and despite taking all possible precautions my worst fears came true; we all tested positive for the virus and spent two weeks battling the daunting infection. 

Fearing the worst during this period, I used to wake up at night to check on everyone. Each day felt like a struggle and I experienced endless anxiety. The only relief was that we did recover in home quarantine and none of us had to be hospitalized.

Vicious mind game

I can now say that due to the uncertainties involved, COVID-19 played havoc with my mental, more than physical, health. It is a vicious mind game!

Precautions were still being observed on a large scale, but people were beginning to get careless. This was the lull before the storm!

This period has absolutely changed my perspective and now I understand the real value of life. It is important to live life to the fullest and spend time with your loved ones.

Towards the end of 2020, COVID-19 cases started declining and it looked as though India had conquered the pandemic. And while the world was praising India for its victory over the virus, the country was preparing to start the world’s largest vaccination campaign.

It looked as if the end of pandemic was in sight and life was returning to normal. The markets and malls were buzzing with activity.

Precautions were still being observed on a large scale, but people were beginning to get careless. This was the lull before the storm!

WHO India
In January 2021, India launched its COVID-19 vaccination programme.

Second wave

And then came the second wave of COVID-19, which took everyone by surprise.

The number of infections started increasing, from a few thousand a day, to more than 300,000; a COVID-19 tsunami was sweeping across the country. And then three more members of my immediate family caught the virus, and my heart sank.

I went through a range of emotions. At first, I was angry with myself for throwing caution to the wind in the last few weeks and letting my guard down. I experienced extreme helplessness in the face of the virus and was anxious to know if antibodies from my previous infection would protect me from reinfection?

Condolence messages

Today, many states and cities in India are under curfew and health workers are working day and night to contain the spread while the mainstream and social media, is dominated by tragic COVID-19 stories. My hands and heart are tired of writing condolence messages.

The healthcare system is overwhelmed. Desperate pleas for medicines, ICU beds in hospitals, oxygen cylinders and injections, are everywhere on social media.

This pandemic has brought this country of 1.3 billion people to its knees.

Sandeep Datta
India’s first nationwide lockdown was in March 2020.

Stories of compassion

My personal struggle with COVID-19 seems meaningless compared to what my compatriots are experiencing, but there are some positives.

Initially, COVID-19 patients were treated as untouchables and society shunned them. But now, people are helping each other.

There is a sense of solidarity and I have heard plenty of stories of compassion involving friends, neighbours and strangers

Neighbours are supporting each other, shopkeepers are delivering goods to those in need, places of worship are being converted into isolation centers to meet the shortage of hospital beds, and local community halls are collecting money and arranging oxygen concentrators.

There is a sense of solidarity and I have heard plenty of stories of compassion involving friends, neighbours and strangers.

The first wave separated loved ones, and although the second has brought people together, there is not a single home in India where COVID-19 has not cast its oppressive and ominous shadow.  

As individuals and as a country, we are still looking for that light at the end of the tunnel”.

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