With only one oxygen cylinder and no way to afford another, the family of a cancer patient with COVID face hard choices.
New Delhi, India – Twenty-nine-year-old Pradeep Gusain was overjoyed to become a father. He planned to throw a lavish party for family, friends and neighbours to celebrate the arrival of his first child – a daughter. But that would have to wait.
In the first week of April, shortly before his daughter’s birth, Pradeep’s mother, 60-year-old Bimla Devi, had tested positive for COVID-19.
Pradeep, a civil engineer, lived with his wife and parents in a small flat in the middle-class area of Vinod Nagar in East Delhi. But, fearing for the wellbeing of his heavily pregnant wife, 26-year-old Karishma, and unborn daughter, he tried to isolate them from his mother by moving into an adjacent house the family co-owned.
It was not enough and on April 21, just three days after the birth of his daughter, Pradeep also tested positive for COVID-19.
“In the beginning, my cousin didn’t exhibit any serious symptoms, only a high fever. So, we thought that, being so young and healthy, he’d be able to pull through,” explains Ashish Ramola, Pradeep’s 32-year-old cousin who works as a journalist in Delhi.
But, after a few days, he started to deteriorate. The family owned an oximeter, a small, hand-held device that measures oxygen saturation of the blood. A safe level is 95 percent. They checked Pradeep’s. It had “plummeted to 50 [percent]”, Ashish recalls.
“We piled him hurriedly into the car and began our nightmarish search for a hospital bed, ventilator and oxygen. All three proved elusive. We kept knocking on the doors of one hospital after another, near and far, for hours,” says Ashish.
“The response was pretty much the same everywhere: ‘We’re full; no beds. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s any availability’.”
As the family’s hunt for a bed continued, the sight of his sick son gasping for breath in the back of the car sent Pradeep’s father, 55-year-old Kamal Singh Gusain, into a panic.
“He kept crying and begging me to help him. ‘Son, please save Pradeep,’ he kept repeating in between sobs and calling up friends and relatives to seek help from them,” recounts Ashish.
Late on April 27, after trying roughly half a dozen hospitals, the Gusain family located a bed for Pradeep at a clinic about 40km (25 miles) away. But the next day, when they finally managed to get him there, his condition had deteriorated so badly that by the time the hospital formalities had been completed and all the forms filled in, he collapsed.
“By the time we wheeled him to a bed, he was already dead,” says a distraught Ashish.
Ashish says his greatest regret right now is that despite its claim to be the “world’s pharmacy”, and the “leading vaccine manufacturer”, India is struggling to even provide basic healthcare to its own citizens.
“During the first wave of the coronavirus last year, the government was appeasing us by saying that the country’s fatalities were low, and that only the elderly were dying. But now? Look around; it seems like a graveyard of the young.”
He adds: “The politicians seem more focused on winning elections than on the ill and dying. The virus has been active for over 14 months in the country but the government has learned nothing. There is complete failure on all fronts.
“From vaccination drives which began late to underprepared hospitals, a deficiency of doctors and medical staff, the flourishing grey market for life-saving drugs like remdesivir and oxygen cylinders which are being sold to desperate families at staggering rates, everything is askew. On top of that, there’s bickering among political parties over who is responsible for the country’s horrific COVID mismanagement. There’s no accountability; only buck-passing. And we call ourselves the world’s largest democracy. What a shame.”