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Indian disaster Covid cares for the sick: “Save your family alone”

NEW DELHI – Days before Nikita Goel planned to marry, she and five family members tested positive for coronavirus, including her parents and 86-year-old grandfather. “I felt like a fallen roof,” she said.

Her father and grandfather soon struggled for breath, and Mrs. Goel, suffering from fever and coughing fits, was sent to seek help from an overloaded health system that collapsed around her. “I suddenly felt like I was alone in the world, alone to save my family,” said Ms. Goel, 28.

The wave of Covid-19 sweeping India hit hard and suddenly, engulfing entire families and neighborhoods and in many cases leaving the sick to care for the sick. Those who are still healthy are at risk of infection in crowded pharmacies, clinics and hospitals that are trying to find drugs and medical care for their loved ones.

Ms. Goel and her family live in Bareilly, a city in India̵

7;s most populous country, Uttar Pradesh, which has among the most cases of Covid-19 in any country in India. The nation has a 1.9 percent vaccination rate and reported more than 3,600 deaths and 390,000 new cases on Sunday, figures that public health experts say are likely to underestimate the victims because so many people die outside overcrowded hospitals.

After responding to the virus last year, India was unprepared for the scale of the current outbreak, especially in countries like Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 237 million. Doctors there say the beds are full, staff and oxygen are in short supply, and drugs to treat Covid-19 are not available. The state government acknowledged that its hospitals were at maximum capacity and that Covid-19 cases among medical personnel had hampered their efforts to treat patients, but rejected reports of oxygen deficiency and a possible reduction in deaths.

A Covid-19 patient received oxygen last week in Uttar Pradesh, India.


Vijay Pandi / Zuma Press

Ms Goel made dozens of calls and visited 11 hospitals in Bareilly for two days while looking for a bed for her grandfather, Jagdish Saran Vaish. She saw hospital corridors full of patients, sometimes two by the bed, she said. The families camped, hoping to allow a loved one, and the waiting rooms were so crowded that there was hardly room to stand.

“Sometimes I felt like I was going to fall,” she said.

The best thing Mrs. Goel could do was get a nebulizer from the hospital; the device allows users to inhale drugs in fog. Another gave her a place on the hospital waiting list: № 52.

She decided to try to recreate an intensive care unit in the family’s small apartment. Her first job was to get an oxygen tank. She offered to pay four times the usual price to deliver it. Before she arrived, she said, her grandfather’s blood oxygen levels had dropped dramatically and he had lost consciousness.

A relative provided him with a hospital bed. Tests found damage to his lungs and doctors put him on oxygen. At home, Ms Goel’s father, Vijay Kumar Goel, 58, was in danger. Oxygen levels also dropped and the same relative found a bed in another hospital.

Mrs. Goel sent her father to the hospital early, but the bed was not ready. They waited for hours in the car. When Mr. Goel could not catch his breath, she screamed at an attendant to take a stretcher and move it inside. A doctor came out and put him on oxygen. Mr. Goel was received that afternoon.

It wasn’t long before Mrs. Goel received a call from the hospital where her grandfather was being treated. She was asked to move him to another hospital. “They said he was lonely and depressed,” she said.

On April 22, Mrs. Goel’s planned wedding day, she moved her grandfather to the hospital where her father was. “He looked happy and smiled at me several times,” she said.

A medical worker and patient of Covid-19 in a temporary medical facility in New Delhi.


Tauseef Mustafa / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Dr Dinesh Mehta, the doctor in charge of patients with Covid-19 at Khushlok Hospital, where Ms Goel’s father and grandfather were treated, said the oxygen supply was short. When the hospital is over, he said, the most severely ill receive priority.

The shortage of hospital beds means that there is a long waiting list. “We feel helpless when we have to say no to patients,” said Dr. Mehta.

A scan at Khushlok Hospital showed that 90% of her grandfather’s lungs were damaged, Ms Goel said. Two days later, the hospital called to tell her that he had died.

Her grandfather was kind and modest, she said. He knew how to read his palms and never charged anyone for it. She remembers as a child, holding out her tiny palm to him to learn what the future holds for her.

“He would say, ‘You will have a lot of money, you will be famous, and a prince will take you to his palace,'” she said.

The next day, doctors said Ms. Goel’s father’s oxygen levels were dropping. He needs Tocilizumab, an immunosuppressant used to treat Covid-19, doctors said. Due to his lack, the family will have to try to find him on their own.

Mrs. Goell called everyone she knew. Her cousin contacted the drug inspector, a local government official who oversees the supply of drugs and vaccines. He said he could not get it right away.

Ms Goel posted a desperate message on WhatsApp: “Please help my father. Lungs damaged due to Covid infection. Tocilizumab injection is urgently needed. Please call or message. “

Her father ran a supermarket in Bareilly before he was forced to close during last year’s lock. Then sell the store to an acquaintance. “He was a self-made, very confident man,” Ms. Goel said. “He taught us never to give up in life.”

He died a few days later, and Mrs. Goel was blamed. “I could have done more to save him,” she said.

Write to Vibhuti Agarwal at vibhuti.agarwal@wsj.com, Shefali Anand at shefali.anand@wsj.com and Krishna Pokharel at krishna.pokharel@wsj.com

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