Kashmir’s COVID-19 disaster: In desperate search of life

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Dozens of people lined up in a top Srinagar hospital, crammed together in a chaotic queue, waiting for the pick-up truck carrying oxygen cylinders as they tended to their Covid-19 infected relatives. The shouts aren’t louder than the desperation.

Nearly five kilometers away, in another Covid-19 designated hospital in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Sabha Bandey was frantically looking for any resource that could save her father. Ghulam Rasool was admitted for the past four days at JVC Bemina, lying on an oxygen bed with a standard supply of fifteen litres. But it wasn’t enough to make sure he lives on.

“His saturation was plummeting very rapidly,” she said, adding that the doctors suggested shifting Rasool on a ventilator support “if I was able to find one”. There were none available in the city — all five hospitals that treat Covid-19 patients were overwhelmed with the patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

“Even a high-flow oxygen machine would do,” Bandey was told. To her dreadful luck, she said, the hospital had one but it showed a “technical error”. “I wish the hospital staff would have gotten the high-flow machine repaired, maybe that could have helped him to survive.” 

In despair, Bandey sat on the floor of the hospital ward, “pressed every button, checked every option, trying to figure out a way to make the machine work”, and broke down near her father.

That’s how Kashmir has been for the past weeks as the ferocious Covid-19 pandemic keeps the region on the brink. Jammu and Kashmir recorded more than 700 deaths, including five medicos, in the first two weeks of May while more than 40,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

These deaths, which a doctors’ body has called an undercount, have occurred despite a strict lockdown in place. As the virus spills out of control, the living has become stories of tragedies and agony.

“Take a crash course before admission”

At Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, 203 beds are kept for Covid-19 patients, as per the government. It includes 192 isolation beds and eleven ICU beds. The social media space is still abuzz with the SOS messages searching a ventilator to save a critical patient. But that isn’t the only shortcoming: many attendants are finding it hard to keep up with the patients as they desperately search for antiviral drugs and oxygen cylinders.

When Wajid Mirza, 34, was tending to his grandmother, 75-year-old Hajira Begum, in the SMHS hospital, half of his days went by waiting for the pickup truck, carrying oxygen cylinders, to arrive. He would spend four hours standing in the queue, “crammed with people coughing”, and would often end up without a refill.

“The truck would carry forty-eight cylinders; forty among them were given to people while eight were reserved for emergencies,” Mirza recalled, adding that he stood with dozens others. 

The chaotic scenes were a regular affair. Seldom would the truck arrive before anybody will not break into fights and hurl abuses. “One day, I was standing in the oxygen line with a man, whose wife was admitted and we were speaking about their life,” recalled Mirza. “Then a man came running and told him that his wife had passed away.”

The man left the line in calm and walked away. 

But the struggle shall not be normalised, Mirza lamented. “There is no management in the hospital. They have made attendants the ward boys.”

Mirza’s grandmother was critical since she was admitted to the ward, where she died within three days. The trauma of attending her has subdued the sense of loss, he said, adding that the sheer mismanagement is snatching the dignity in death.

“If you want to admit a patient in the government hospital, you should take a 14-day long course,” he said. “Like a crash course for nurses. Then only it can work.”

Dr. Nisar-ul-Hassan, the president of Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) told The Kashmir Walla that the delay in reporting to hospitals is the main reason for the increase in the number of deaths due to Covid-19 in the valley.  “Covid-19 patients arrive at hospitals only when their condition worsens,” said Hassan.

To curb the further spread of the disease, the Jammu and Kashmir administration further extended the lockdown till 24 May. With the stories of horrifying deaths, many are paranoid now, the doctors believe, to come ahead with Covid-19 symptoms. 

“Take me home”

When Bandey had reached the hospital with her father on 4 May, she said the hospital was very cooperative. On the first night, the JVC management gave her father a “big oxygen cylinder” of 23 liters. 

But next morning, they were asked to arrange on their own. Bandey and her elder brother, Mudasir, 35, started looking for the leads. “It wasn’t that hard,” she said, “and we arranged a cylinder for 11,000 [rupees].” However, it would only last for six hours. 

The family of five — all the members Covid-19 positive, but with mild symptoms, except the father — lived in hours. Right after changing the oxygen cylinder, the brother-sister duo would engage in making sure the next one is on the time too. “We lived a night at a time,” she said. “We just prayed he would survive another day.”

Meanwhile, the saturation of Bandey’s father’s oxygen level kept fluctuating. On 7 May, his condition suddenly started deteriorating. “The place from where we were getting oxygen exhausted its resources,” she said. “My brother went for a refill.”

The next fifteen minutes were a horror that Bandey will never forget as she saw her father gasping for air, withering in pain, as she stood by helplessly. “Doctors asked me where is his oxygen supply? I told them that it would take ten minutes as a person had gone out to procure more.” 

Bandey then pleaded with the management for an ICU bed, but nothing. She ran up to the ICU ward, sounding alarms with rhythmic beeping of heartbeats. “The doctors told me that they don’t have anything in their hands. We can’t give him anything more than the main supply [of oxygen], we don’t have big cylinders.”

The oxygen supply came and her father survived that day — “but it was a continuous task,” Bandey recalled. “To refill it again and again.”

While the doctors gradually prepared her for the eventuality, she said she lingered onto hope. “I spent my entire day with my phone: trying to gain a few more hours for him,” Bandey said. It was a lost battle, she understood. “I started thinking how long would I be able to run around for oxygen. Someday, I will get late and I will lose abbu.”

However, Bandey hit the rock bottom when one afternoon, her father held her hand and tried to talk in whispers. “I’m tired and uneasy. Take me home. If I have to die, I’ll die sitting in my home, with my loved ones,” Bandey’s father told her. “I want to be discharged from the hospital.” 

She broke down. “He knew the hospital wasn’t prepared to treat patients like him. He told me: ‘How much would you run? Take me home, please.’”

Later that day, his oxygen plummeted to a fatal level. And he suffered a cardiac arrest. 

When Bandey recalled his death, the family was still recovering from Covid-19. Though she believes that they will recover, she won’t be able to move past her father’s death. 

As the Covid-19 takes over the hospitals, and pierces through the families, the death amid chaos has snatched the moments of final goodbyes. Bandey was not able to tend to her father when his death neared, she said. 

“I would spend the day preparing for the night,” Bandey said. 

“It will stay with me. … I tried everything, but for how long would have I done that?”

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