The nights were long and laden with fear. I stayed awake for hours, firmly focused on the oximeter measuring every change in the oxygen level as my family and I battled a bout of Covid locked up in our home. A thousand thoughts raced through: Will our oxygen level hold, what happens if it dips, where will we get help, will we manage to get oxygen and a hospital bed? On top of everything else, the larger question loomed: Will we be able to breathe?
Luckily for us, what mortified us every minute of those dreary nights were our imaginary fears. They were frighteningly real for many not as lucky as we were. As the second wave of an uncontrollable pandemic swept through India, including Delhi, notorious for its foul air, people struggled to breathe wherever they were—in their bedrooms, in hospitals, in parking lots. The simple task of breathing that we were accustomed to as a normal function of our existence on Earth suddenly turned dire. Many gasped, choked and suffocated. Hundreds perished.
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The peak of the pandemic is now past. But fears persist, particularly amidst projections of a third wave. Or possibly, even a fourth. Are we better prepared now? Have lessons been learnt? Are the oxygen plants that our political leaders promised really in place and adequate supply of medical oxygen assured for an anxious population? While we can hope and pray that we will never again be subjected to the sufferings that one had to endure just to breathe, we must also not lose sight of the families of those who died such despicable and insufferable deaths. They deserve our empathy for they remain living reminders of our collective failing. Having had to helplessly watch their dear ones die, have they regained their composure? Have they found closure?
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Perhaps a bit old school, I have always been against the shoot and scoot journalism of today. Look at what happened with the media blitzkrieg that followed Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. Those who raised the maximum din went surprisingly quiet as the first anniversary of Rajput’s death went by, without a trace of the so-called ‘justice for Sushant’ that triggered the media frenzy in the first place being anywhere in sight.
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Persisting with a story is essential, just as periodically revisiting what happened is important to prevent mistakes of the past. This issue of Outlook does precisely that—going back to bereaved families, done in by the inexcusable oxygen crisis of April-May. While taking stock of the status of the country’s oxygen preparation/supply for future waves, we highlight the heart-wrenching stories of some of the affected families who have all but been forgotten.
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Behind every death due to oxygen shortage, there was a face, as also a family left disconsolate. Sadly, their poignant stories have all but been pushed to the sidelines as political parties take centre stage, with politicians apportioning blame. If they can be believed, Delhi exaggerated its oxygen demand, depriving those who desperately needed it in other states. The raucous debate does not, however, explain how and why so many people in Delhi died if the oxygen shortage wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. Are we to believe the people who died stopped breathing voluntarily? No explanation can lessen the grief of those who lived through such untold sufferings. Take the story of Saraswati Bisht of Delhi’s Wazirabad who died as her distraught family was unable to get her an oxygen cylinder on time. Too young to comprehend the tragedy, all that her young children could now say is, “Mummy badalon par gayi hai” (She has gone to the clouds). Her story, and that of those who died unnecessary deaths, has an important message for all of us—that life is precious and we shouldn’t take anything, even oxygen, for granted.
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Ruben banerjee Group editor-in-chief