Where personal tragedy meets systemic State failure
Like an oncologist who gets cancer or a dermatologist who battles skin disease, this week, I became the story I have reported for the past fifteen months.
I lost my father, Speedy Dutt, to Covid-19 and experienced every bit of the devastation, desolation, anger and anxiety that I have only so far chronicled in other families through the pandemic.
My father, a former Air India official, but essentially an inventor at heart — a man who loved to sometimes break machines just so that he could have the joy of re-engineering them — was a twinkly-eyed, ever-optimistic man of science. He was an undemanding feminist father who gave my sister and me wings to fly, placing literally no demands on our time or emotion, while he spent hours crafting planes and trains built from mecanno. And he made us promise that when his time came, we would donate these to a children’s orphanage.
Grief, like Covid-19, mutates and escapes the inoculation of both time and the reassurance of loving friends. It is less sledgehammer and more screwdriver, drilling little holes in your head and heart, leaving you haunted by the ifs and buts of your decisions.
It’s not even been 72 hours since his death, as I write this on Friday, and every time I turn into his YouTube Channel (devoted to his meccano creations), I find myself collapsing in inconsolable tears, haunted for hours after by regret about all that was left unsaid and undone (including my failure to send Hindustan Times an article he wrote on the end of the 747 Jumbo that he was so keen to see in print).
Like many elderly people, my father was not immediately keen to go to hospital. He dreaded not being able to see his family in what he feared might be his last few days. Initially, doctors believed that his infection was mild, his oxygen levels were stable and agreed that it was better to treat him within his comfort zone. He was home monitored by a fine team of doctors from Medanta.
But when the spike came, it came suddenly, unexpectedly, both the rise in fever and the drop in oxygen levels. We panicked and organised a private ambulance in the belief that it would help us get him to hospital quicker than waiting for Medanta’s ambulance.
What arrived was a broken down Maruti van with a single cylinder and a crew of one — the driver. He assured me the cylinder worked and he had the gear needed. We clambered on, me in the front seat, my father and his attendant at the back. He lay there uncomfortably on a slab for one hour as we navigated traffic. Despite pleas to the Delhi Police, there is still no green corridor for ambulances because randomly placed barricades to enforce the “curfew” are clogging up the streets.
By the time we reached Medanta, his oxygen levels had fallen sharply and the emergency shift doctor believed he needed an intensive care unit (ICU) bed. It turned out that the cylinder in the van masquerading as an ambulance had faltered, and the mask he had been given was not the one meant for high-flow oxygen.
Despite the best possible medical care — and I am so unspeakably grateful to the team of doctors and nurses at Medanta — he did not last for more than a few days, spending the last two days of his life on a ventilator.
When we went to cremate him at the grounds closest to the hospital, I witnessed, as I have in multiple reports I have filed from funeral sites, the scrum for space. At least three other families had been given the same token number for a cremation at the same time. An argument ensued, a fight erupted, my sister had to call the police for help.
As a journalist, I have often raised these questions; today they consume me as a daughter. Had the vaccination programme rolled out earlier, might my father have had a better chance at being alive? He had taken one shot and was due for his second the week he got Covid. Had I chosen a different ambulance or waited a bit longer, might he still be alive today?
But I am also aware of my privilege through my crushing loss. At least he had a chance to fight for his life — unlike the thousands of Indians whose stories I tell everyday, who are dying at the gates of shut hospitals who have no space or oxygen for them.
I am orphaned today, but still luckier than those who have been orphaned by the Indian State.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist
The views expressed are personal