India's 1st Covid fatality: In Kalaburagi, memories of a harrowing time persist
It was a joyous occasion on February 29, 2020, when 76-year-old Mohammed Hussain Siddiq returned from Umrah, a pilgrimage undertaken by Muslims, in Saudi Arabia. Several people thronged to get a glimpse of Siddiq, a Qazi or religious clergyman and well-known personality near Osmania Colony in the Ring Road area of Kalaburagi, about 579km from Bengaluru. Siddiq has nine children, and six of them were present at home surrounded by people from the locality.
But the joy quickly turned to anxiety as Siddiq fell ill a few days later.
A family doctor treated Siddiq and later recommended that they take him to the hospital where proper treatment can be administered. One of his sons, Faisal Siddiq, took his father to Sunrise Hospital in the same city where they spent 10 agonising hours trying to find out the problem with Siddiq.
“First they took the X-ray and said everything was okay. But after the CT Scan, they acted differently and asked us to take my father to Hyderabad (230km away) for treatment,” Faisal, 50, said. Thus began one of the most harrowing ordeals for the family as they went to one hospital after another with a certificate from Sunrise, detailing that Siddiq was indeed Covid-19 positive. Just one day ago, Karnataka had reported its first Covid-19 case in Bengaluru, and there was no clarity on how to deal with a virus the world knew little about, let alone predict it would turn into a global pandemic.
Siddiq was admitted to a private hospital in Hyderabad and even given an estimated bill of ₹1 lakh per day for treatment. But half an hour later, the hospital called Faisal to the office and asked him to take his father back to Kalaburagi.
On the way back in an ambulance, Siddiq breathed his last, becoming the first fatality of Covid-19 in India, spreading panic among the population and around the home of the clergyman. “If the hospital had sent us to a government hospital, my father would have been alive today,” Faisal said.
In Bengaluru, K Sudhakar, then medical education minister, at his daily Covid-19 briefing, gave an inaccurate account of what happened in Kalaburagi. His version that Siddiq was taken from a government hospital was inaccurate as health department officials the previous day had specifically mentioned it was a private facility. Reporters pointed out the inconsistent account, and Sudhakar chided senior health officials that further added to the confusion around the incident and the government’s clear lack of cohesion and comprehension of the developing health crisis.
The ordeal for the family continued as local media continued to report on the story, adding to growing fears around the virus. “For about three-four months, people would see us and run away. They thought that I, too, may have contracted it,” Faisal said.
One sister, who lives with her husband in another locality, later tested positive, and so did the family doctor, attracting more scrutiny. The religious undertones to the incident added to the misinformation and bigotry on the social media.
With an imminent lockdown in sight, news and mind space were occupied with the virus. More so for the Siddiq family, which was not even allowed to properly grieve their loss.
Karnataka has since seen nearly 1 million Covid-19 cases in the state, and the health crisis has been turned into another occurrence, despite its potent threat, and vapourised the stigma around it. Every new case became a statistic in the bulletin in the state and country. At least 11 million people in India and 114 million globally have contracted the virus.
At least 12,350 people lost their lives in Karnataka alone, just as hundreds of thousands more around the country and planet. In India, 161,000 people have lost their lives. This number stands at 2.5 million globally.
But the pandemic has deeply impacted those who lost their families and loved ones to the pandemic. Millions more lost their livelihoods and left a lasting impact that may take years to heal.
“We keep away from our relatives who kept away from us due to the incident,” Faisal said.
“Bure waqt pe jo saath nahin rehte, unka kya kehna (but what to say about those who don’t stand with you in the bad times). We also stay away from them, gathered our lives and moved on.”