INDIA is in the grip of what appears to be an interminable nightmare. A shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and the drug Remdesirvir have created a perfect storm — the result of which is a healthcare system on its knees and human suffering on a scale never before seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, at least 300,000 new cases were reported every day and crematoriums have been working non-stop.
In an interview with the Express, first year general surgery resident at Kasturba Hospital Dr Praneetha Modumudi gave a first hand account of what life has been like on the front line since India was besieged by a second wave at the beginning of April. What she describes is nothing short of catastrophic.
The private hospital she works at in Manipal, Karnataka has now stopped taking elective cases and is only working on emergency surgeries. Half of the hospital has been converted into a Covid ward. Earlier this month the hospital’s medical superintendent said the hospital was experiencing an acute shortage of beds and ventilators.
Their predicament is replicated in hospitals throughout one of the most populous countries in the world. When Modumudi is not making the rounds on the general surgery ward she spends up to six hours a day attending to Covid patients. The PPE she and her colleagues wear in the stifling heat make it difficult to breathe.
“This wave came as a sudden shock,”says Modumudi. “The cases started to grow at the beginning of April. We had to convert wards into Covid wards. And then what started to happen was that my colleagues started testing positive, my seniors tested positive. In fact my whole staff, including those who take swabs from patients turned positive. So there is a very high rate of infection.”
India’s healthcare system is caving in under the weight of the pandemic. Modumudi believes the country fell into a state of negligence and let its guard down at the beginning of the year. Only last month, millions of devotees gathered in the northern city of Haridwar for the religious festival Kumbh Mela which has since been likened to a super spreader event.
Additionally crowds have been participating in election rallies. Modumudi says religious festivals and other major events should be cancelled while the country’s healthcare system tries to gain some measure of control over the crisis. She is pleading for common sense to prevail.
“I personally feel it’s very irresponsible of the government for allowing people to gather in large numbers. There are no beds available, there is no oxygen available. People are dying just because we are not able to ventilate them. Can you imagine what a horrible death it must be to die from breathlessness? If people are going to be exposed to this virus because they are congregating in large groups, then of course there are going to be hundreds of thousands of positive cases. Who is going to arrange beds for them? The government is clearly not taking responsibility for arranging beds for them,” says Modumudi who can hardly contain her frustration with the situation.
Currently there is a statewide lockdown in the state of Karnataka; all the groceries and restaurants have been closed. Modumudi’s parents live in another state so she is not worried about bringing home any infection but her other colleagues have not been so fortunate.
“One of my very close friends’ parents are both positive, she has been looking after them at the hospital she works at. And the father of another close friend of mine recently passed away from Covid. He was young and did not have diabetes or hypertension but this disease is unpredictable and it’s affecting people differently,”she says.
Modumudi always wanted to become a doctor, it was the only field that gave her true satisfaction. She found happiness helping people but no amount of studying or training could have prepared her for what she is confronted with on a daily basis. Images of misery and hopelessness play on repeat in her mind.
She remembers an elderly couple, both sick with Covid, being turned away because they could not afford to stay at the hospital, and she remembers the look of desperation in the eyes of a Covid positive patient who was separated from her baby soon after she gave birth. The baby was placed in NICU. Unable to communicate with Modumudi and the other doctors, the mother used hand gestures in an effort to find out how her baby was.
“It was heartbreaking, she was asking whether she would get well and I didn’t know how to answer her,” says Modumudi.
“As doctors we deal with matters of life and death every day, but now has been a lot worse. But I’m not letting my emotions cloud my judgment or get in the way of me doing my job. This experience has taught me that life is unpredictable, it has prepared me to be an overall doctor. If not for the pandemic, I would have just been a general surgeon doing my surgeries and nothing more but now I know more about how immunity and the overall health of a patient is important and how to make best use of the resources that are available. Persons looking in can also see how hard those on the frontline work to save the lives of their patients.”
What will it take for India to emerge out of this crisis? Modumudi recalls that when India went into a nationwide lockdown last year, there was a dramatic drop in cases. She says the current lockdown in Karnataka should be extended and strictly maintained. Hospitals need to be supplied with oxygen, medication and beds and more people need to be vaccinated, she says.
The devastating scenes that are playing out in India — the world’s largest producer of vaccines — matters to the rest of the world. The concern is that the more Covid cases a country has, the higher the likelihood that more variants will emerge. Modumudi has a simple message for the people of T&T.
“Stay safe and if you don’t need to go out, stay home. And get vaccinated, don’t take for granted the importance of the vaccine and if you can help India — great. I think it needs all the help that can come its way,”she says.