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'How will I cope if I fall sick?': In India, COVID-19 spares no one

Waking up to grim messages and speaking on a daily basis to despondent doctors, our correspondent in Mumbai wonders if her city will ever be the same again.

'How will I cope if I fall sick?': In India, COVID-19 spares no one

Empty oxygen cylinders at a Mumbai hospital. (Photo: Rebecca Bundhun)

MUMBAI: The sound of the waves crashing on rocks and the echoing crows' caws punctuate an otherwise silent world on the city's seafront.

There's not a soul in sight.

I am not used to having this part of Mumbai to myself, but a lockdown has forced almost everyone indoors during the deadly second wave of infections. As a journalist, I fall under the category of "essential worker" and the guidelines allow me to venture out to do my job.

It's rare to see a city of 20 million inhabitants stop moving. But watching the stillness, a sense of deja vu washes over me. This is what happened a year ago during India's nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, one of the strictest in the world.

Mumbai's iconic Gateway of India is deserted during the latest COVID-19 lockdown. (Photo: Rebecca Bundhun)

Then, the virus was unfamiliar territory and many of Mumbai's residents were scared to leave their homes. For those who felt stifled and tried to move around the city, police checkpoints greeted them at every corner.

As months went by and restrictions eased, the pandemic didn't seem so frightening, and people resumed their work and social lives. They gathered at bars and went to massive weddings teeming with hundreds of guests.

"People got tired of following restrictions and living their life being caged," a doctor tells me. Now, his life is dominated by a deluge of COVID-19 patients, peppered incessantly around the clock by calls from people asking for help.

"They started taking the coronavirus lightly," he says, adding that the current situation was completely preventable. He tells me: India's government failed to prepare.

Many, including the authorities, thought India had beaten the virus.

While I followed COVID-19 guidelines, I had adjusted to the pandemic and had become somewhat comfortable with the situation. In recent months, I was travelling to homes, offices and crowded markets to report.

A medical worker cools himself down in the afternoon heat. (Photo: Rebecca Bundhun)

During balmy evenings, I would meet friends at the racecourse for dinner. Sitting on the open-air lawns, we watched workers dismantling a sprawling, barely-used COVID-19 field hospital built at the venue during the first wave.

But as the second wave hit and cases soared in Mumbai and the wider state of Maharashtra - the worst-hit in terms of number of infections - the local government started to introduce curbs, which were steadily tightened until a lockdown was in place. 

At first, Mumbai's residents were reluctant to give up the lives that they had just got back. But as the horrors of India's coronavirus crisis became the subject of international media attention, reality struck.

The daily pleas on social media for hospital beds, oxygen supplies and medicine are constant reminders of how deep the crisis is. The worry haunts us all: How will I cope if I fall sick?

Everyone I speak to has a COVID-19 story. They're down with the virus, or a close family member is; they're helping friends to get urgent access to hospitals or medicine. They tell me about the relatives they've lost to the virus.A medical worker at a Mumbai field hospital set up during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Rebecca Bundhun)

I wake up to messages on my media WhatsApp groups – another in our fraternity of journalists has died overnight, claimed by the coronavirus.

As I track the latest headlines, other stories seem to pale into insignificance compared with the tsunami that has hit India's healthcare system.

The images of bodies lined up outside crematoriums. A patient gasping for air. A mother mourning her son who didn't make it because basic medical help was simply unavailable.

The risks of going out for work are high. I go into the field to report, but only when it's essential to the story. Many of my interviews take place online. Even a trip to the grocery store feels like a game of Russian roulette in this climate.Rebecca Bundhun on assignment at a vaccination centre in Mumbai.

I speak to doctors on a daily basis. The new variant is more infectious, they say. It's affecting younger people. 

A young professional in Delhi – now the epicentre of the pandemic – tells me 13 members in his immediate family at home are infected. He has lost seven relatives to the virus in this second wave. His mother needs critical care and he is keeping her alive on an oxygen concentrator at home because he cannot find her a hospital bed.

"I loved my country for all these years," he says. "Now I don't want to live here anymore."

At Mumbai's vaccination centres, elderly citizens stand in queues in the searing midday heat. Some have travelled miles to have the jab, only to be told there are none left.The sun sets on a deserted Marine Drive in Mumbai, India. (Photo: Rebecca Bundhun)

The sun sets on the seafront. The skyline looms in a distant haze. The waves beat against the rocks. An eerie calm. I wonder when the life that normally pulses through this stretch of the city will return.

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Source: CNA/ac

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