In April 2021, the second wave of COVID-19 washed over India like a tsunami over an unsuspecting coastal village. The citizenry, the political establishment, the frontline healthcare workers – none of them were prepared for the unprecedented loss of life that they were about to witness. When all else failed to provide even a modicum of support, we turned to each other, even if it meant clutching at straws. Twitter became the public forum to amplify the SOS signals of the kin of the dying; WhatsApp and Telegram groups became the de facto channels to seek precious connections; complete strangers provided succour with nothing but a wish that it would be paid forward when the time came.
It was during this time that a motley bunch of founders and hundreds of volunteers came together to create a platform called COVIDCitizens.org. We raised funds, set up support channels on web, voice, audio and phone. Every one on the team worked tirelessly and literally round the clock. Having seen a personal loss just a few days prior to this wave, I threw myself into this work along with many others. We serviced over 750,000 requests for data, connections, hospital beds, oxygen concentrators, ICU beds, ECMO machines, plasma, blood, Remdesivir, Amphotericin and a hundred other things. We lost track of whose query we serviced, and who came back a few hours later to inform us of their kin’s death. We lost track of many things in those few weeks, including those we saved, and those we lost.
We humans find a way to come to terms with situations fairly quickly – may be it is an evolutionary thing. Over the next few days, the requests for medical equipment and medication got easier to deal with. What was heart-wrenching was to answer the cries for help from people who had lost their parents, relatives figuring out what to do with their nephews and nieces who were orphaned overnight, siblings weeping uncontrollably on the phone that their sibling would not see the light of day if an ambulance does not reach in the next hour, friends refusing to get admitted to a hospital because they did not have adequate insurance and didn’t want to leave their family poorer. It was heart-wrenching, because we had no answers to provide.
We were as helpless as them, but were just facing them with a thin veneer of courage. We knew that very well.
But among all of us, one person stayed up for longer, slept for fewer minutes, put in that one extra row in the database, answered one more call for distress, served one more request for counseling, searched for the right contact number just a little bit harder. When asked, he would always say that we could rest when this was over. All the while knowing that he had just a few weeks to live.
His own existence beyond that arbitrary deadline was dependent on someone else passing on and donating their organ to him.
When all options were exhausted, and we lost someone, we got better at writing ‘clutter-breaking copy’ on Ketto or Milaap, to raise funds for those who we lost, or were about to lose. We got better at appealing to those who were fortunate to have simply continued to live.
But not all fundraisers were born equal. A postgraduate who left behind a wife and two kids was worth different than a graduate who left behind one child. The family’s sole breadwinner was worth different than a father who left behind a child with special needs. A man whose desperate fight for life ran up a huge medical bill and left debts on his family, was worth different than a hardworking machine operator with aged parents in Punjab.
On paper, each soul is supposed to be the same, worth just about 21.3 grams. But how could the worth of each soul be so vastly different? How could a lifetime’s worth, be captured by putting worth on a life? Just because we are contributing some money, does not give us the right to put a price tag on a life. Who allowed us to put a mathematical justification to what was lost? How can all the stillborn memories be bunched together and weighed on a scale against money? How can all the unsaid goodbyes that will forever clot their loved ones’ ability to love again be summed up to a number?
Coming back to our colleague at COVIDCitizens.org, the one who worked so tirelessly – we lost him a few weeks after the second wave subsided and we could breathe again.
We lost him unexpectedly even as he was patiently waiting for a potential donor organ to open up. And yes, we put a price tag, and yes, we did raise funds. Because that was what was left for us to do to support his grieving family.
I am fairly certain that many of us who contributed in any way, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some form or the other. The only hope is that we saved some lives, and mattered to someone who did not see any hope during those dark nights. Over time, I also hope that we learn to live with the voids that have formed in all our lives, and to face what life throws at us with hope, rather than with cynicism. One can always hope, and get on with the business of living.