Varanasi: The viral picture that defines India's Covid distress

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Chandrakala with her sonImage source, UGC
Image caption,
This picture of Chandrakala with her son's body (cropped out) by her feet went viral

A heartbreaking image of a mother sitting with the lifeless body of her 29-year-old son at her feet has gone viral in India.

The photo shows an exhausted Chandrakala Singh, sitting stone-faced in an electric rickshaw with the body of her son Vineet Singh, on a busy street in the city of Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The haunting image is just one example of the plight of Indians trapped between a raging pandemic and a healthcare system on the brink of collapse.

The state is among the worst affected as a severe second wave of Covid-19 sweeps India. Varanasi, which is struggling to cope with the pandemic, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency.

On Monday morning, Mrs Singh had travelled with her son to a hospital attached to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) from their home, just over an hour's drive from the city, his uncle Jai Singh told BBC Hindi.

"Vineet suffered from a kidney ailment and was consulting a doctor at the BHU hospital for some time. He had booked an appointment for Monday a week back," Mr Singh said.

But when mother and son reached the hospital, they were told that the doctor was not there and were advised to go to the trauma centre that accepted emergency cases.

Vineet collapsed at the entrance of the trauma centre and, his mother says, hospital staff refused to admit him.

"They said he's got corona. Take him away from here. My son, my child was gasping for breath. We begged for oxygen and an ambulance, but we got nothing," she said, weeping.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Hospitals are overflowing with patients, often two to a bed

She put him in an e-rickshaw and took him to a private hospital nearby, but they also refused to admit him.

On the way to the third hospital, Vineet died, his body at his mother's feet.

And as she sat there grieving, shattered by the death of her son and in desperate need of help, she was robbed. Her son's medical records and phone were stolen.

The photograph, first published by local Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran, has been widely shared in India.

Shravan Bharadwaj, the reporter who covered the story, told the BBC that the road on which Vineet died is just outside BHU and has dozens of private hospitals on it.

"But not a single one offered help," he said.

It's not yet clear whether Vineet died from Covid-19 complications, or even if he had contracted the virus since his family says "he had none of the symptoms".

"Had he been admitted, given oxygen and treated for his kidney problems, Vineet's life could have been saved. He died from negligence. This kind of negligence can cause many more deaths," his uncle said.

Media caption,

Scenes outside a hospital in Delhi, where people are dying without getting the treatment they need

Similar scenes of distress are playing out across India, with crowds waiting outside overwhelmed hospitals and rows of ambulances with patients awaiting their turn to be admitted. Many, like Vineet, have died outside hospitals or on their way to one.

Social media is awash with frantic calls for oxygen, ambulances, ICU beds and life-saving drugs as India battles the deadly second wave.

Varanasi's BHU hospital is a premier medical facility which is the go-to health centre for nearly 25 million people living in 40 odd districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. But the surge in Covid cases has overwhelmed the hospital and its staff.

A hospital official told the BBC that because of the pandemic, they were doing only online consultations.

Dr Sharad Mathur, the medical superintendent of the hospital, said they were trying to do their best, but "there is just too much pressure".

"There is an acute shortage of manpower, and everyone available has already been deployed. Each day, we are saving many lives. But people are only rushing to hospitals when patients are extremely critical. And all this is happening in the middle of a pandemic.

"All patients that are being treated are emergencies and they are getting to us in critical condition. But we simply cannot save the life of every single patient," he said.