The sound of telephones ringing fill up the room. In the brief moments of respite from the constantly blaring phones, one can hear announcements being read out robotically. “Please wear the mask over your nose,” one says followed by “Sanitize and wash your hands regularly.” But it is a struggle to hear them clearly as relatives and hospital staff run around frantically to help as many patients as they can.
People gathered around the doorway are asked to move. Two hospital staff in PPE enter the room with a patient on a stretcher: a middle-aged woman sleeping on her side, drawing deep breaths from her oxygen mask. The stretcher is placed next to a few others with patients in similar condition — those with dropping oxygen saturation levels waiting for a bed.
The people whose symptoms are less severe sit on chairs. A lot of them are senior citizens, falling asleep in their chairs due to the fatigue, their loose masks dropping below their chin. Their caregivers fill out registration forms in a frantic bid to secure a coveted hospital bed for their loved ones at the earliest.
In the left corner of this room is a makeshift kiosk with a computer to key in patient details and answer queries. This is where I am standing, overwhelmed and dissociated. This is a COVID-19 ward in a hospital in Bengaluru, an Indian city with over 100,000 active cases of COVID-19.
I make my way out of the ward. The scene outside is more familiar. The large, grey parking lot opposite has housed many ambulances for the last few weeks. Relatives and caretakers of patients sit on a raised platform near the parking lot. I see a young boy, sitting next to a woman, presumably his mother. I think about how he is the youngest person I have seen in the hospital so far.
“Take some sanitizer, dear,” the security guard yells through the noise in Tamil, snapping me back to the present. “Is your father OK now?” he asks. My father was admitted in the same ward for 17 days. In this time, I have met this security guard almost everyday. We don’t know each other’s names, but he was my earliest source of reassurance in the hospital.
“It is important that he stays brave and believes in his recovery. He shouldn’t let panic and fear take over, that is when things will worsen,” he told me the night I got my father admitted in early April. It was after midnight and I had had a long day filled with unsolicited advice. I brushed this aside. A few days later, in a moment of despair my father asked me over a phone call, “I will make it out of this fine, no?” I was at a loss for words so I passed on the advice from the security guard. Even if I didn’t fully believe it myself. And it kept my father afloat throughout his hospitalization.
I make my way to the platform to sit for a few minutes. A young man approaches me. I recognize him. Not by name but by his N-95 mask, a blue cloth mask over it and the silver bracelet on his right hand. I often see him when I’m at the hospital. Like me, his father is also COVID positive and getting treated here. We had sparse conversations earlier to help each other with logistics and hospital details.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “Did your father get discharged or…?” he trails off. Both of us know what that means. We have seen people lose their loved ones in this same parking lot almost everyday. “No, he recovered and is at home,” I inform him as I wait to complete insurance formalities. He hopes his father is also discharged soon. I assure him that his father will be fine, praying my words come true.
A few minutes later I hear a woman yelling on the phone. “What do you mean she is dead? You told me she was fine just this morning.”
All eyes are on her. Not looking at her with curiosity or confusion. But with empathy. She falls to the ground weeping. Few women rush to her side, one of them offers her water. She makes a phone call after calming herself down.
“Mom is dead it seems. I’m here outside the hospital to give her some spare clothes. How can she be dead?” the woman asks the person on the call. She breaks down again. An older woman comforts her. “I also lost my mother a few days ago. It will be OK,” she reassures her.
In the midst of all the death, fear and grief, there is a quiet solidarity among everyone in the parking lot. A perverse comfort in knowing that we are not alone even when it seems like we have been abandoned by those in power.
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