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Ever since India’s lockdown began in March, my life as a reporter has centered on covering how the coronavirus is affecting other people. I reported on at least a dozen cases where patients died after being turned away from crowded hospitals. I interviewed parents who lost their 12-year-old child, a young husband who lost his pregnant wife, a son who lost his father.
A few months ago, I was one of the lead reporters on an article about “virus trains” in India — emergency transportation provided by the government during the spring and summer. They were organized to help transport migrant workers to their home villages, but they also ended up spreading the coronavirus throughout the country. I spent weeks poring over data in various districts.
The coronavirus seemed, at the time, to be an all-consuming story. And then it swallowed up my entire life.
In August, my father, who’s diabetic, contracted the virus. I had to rush him in an ambulance to New Delhi, because there was a shortage of beds in the few good hospitals for coronavirus patients in his city, Lucknow. He barely made it through. He lost nearly all of his hearing, and he experienced severe degeneration of his eyesight.
While my father recuperated, I continued reporting on the virus trains. In the Ganjam district, a village on the east coast of India, I came across the story of Prafulla Behera, 39, a migrant who had left Ganjam over a decade earlier to find work at a factory in Surat, in western India. He died a couple of days after arriving in Ganjam by train. Six of the seven people traveling with him had tested positive for the virus, including his brother Rabindra. In his suitcase, Prafulla had 13 dresses for his four daughters.
A short distance from his village, I learned about a primary-school teacher, Simanchal Satapathy, 26, who had started working at a quarantine center, caring for infected migrants who had traveled home on the trains. He contracted the virus and died at a hospital. The grief broke his parents, who both hanged themselves after hearing of his death.
While working on those stories, I went to my hotel room in a small town next to the sea, near Prafulla’s and Simanchal’s villages, and I called my family back home. My husband said that his father was showing symptoms of Covid-19. So was my husband. And my son.
In the span of a week, a number of my family members, including my sister-in-law and niece, had tested positive for the virus. After I arrived home, I had to take my husband, son and mother-in-law to the hospital.
I felt engulfed — physically and emotionally — by uncertainties, and struggled to keep morbid thoughts aside. How long would it be before the steroids they were prescribed take effect? What if their cases went from being moderate to severe?
The only emotional help were my three golden retrievers, who would crowd around me as I cried into the night and prayed for everyone to get well. I would wear a mask and try to keep an appropriate distance from my husband and son while serving them meals. We talked on group calls from our respective rooms.
After my father-in-law was discharged, I breathed a sigh of relief. But that was short-lived. He became short of breath, just like Prafulla and Simanchal did. Later, as he struggled with his oxygen mask and tubes, he had a fatal heart attack.
In a surreal way, reporting on the coronavirus tragedies of other families helped me cope with Covid in my own. I knew I wasn’t alone, and I was heartened by the strength I saw in others who were coping. And conversely, seeing those I love get infected — my husband, father, son, niece and mother-in-law are recovering, thank goodness — and losing a dear family member to the virus gave me a depth of empathy for others in my reporting that I could never have imagined otherwise.
The faces of Prafulla and then Simanchal came to my mind as the ambulance workers offloaded my father-in-law’s body, zipped up to the head in a white plastic bag. As the body was placed on a funeral pyre, I remembered interviewing the families of Prafulla and Simanchal. I could hear the grief in their voices.
The coronavirus tragedies in India continue to accumulate. I’ll keep telling their stories. I know what they’re going through.