Witnessing COVID chaos in India’s hospitals, graveyards and crematoriums
New Delhi, India
Perspective byDanish Siddiqui
Updated 7 June
28 images VIDEO
Covering the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic as it tore through Indian cities, towns and villages was overwhelming at times.
Patients died at home, in their cars on the way to hospital and outside emergency wards because there were no beds for them.
India has recorded more than 28 million coronavirus cases, and daily new cases sometimes exceeded 400,000, although by Thursday, June 3, that had come down to around 135,000.
Error loading this resource
On a per capita basis its COVID-19 death toll is relatively low, but deaths were rising while in Europe and the United States they are in decline.
Some Indians said what made the devastation of April and May harder to accept was that they believed the worst of the pandemic was over in February, when the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths were far below today's.
A woman with a breathing problem receives oxygen support for free inside her car at a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) in Ghaziabad.
In the middle of that month, the number of daily new cases was around 9,000.
Election rallies went ahead, markets teemed with people and huge crowds of worshippers attended religious festivals. In much of the rest of the world, large gatherings were forbidden as governments fought to slow the spread of the virus.
Devotees gather for an evening prayer on the banks of the river Ganges during Kumbh Mela, or the Pitcher Festival in Haridwar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi resisted calls for a repeat of the strict lockdown he ordered last year. Instead he asked states to impose local curbs in the worst affected areas.
The health ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the government's COVID-19 policies.
In April, I travelled to Haridwar, a holy Hindu city along the river Ganges, to cover the Kumbh Mela, a festival where people believe that bathing brings salvation from the cycle of life and death. Millions of devotees showed up.
My trip to Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital in New Delhi later that month came as a shock. I had been to the same hospital - the largest in the capital - a few months back, and at that time things were organized and under control.
This time, as I stepped into the emergency room, it was different.
A COVID-19 patient gets treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash hospital in New Delhi.
There were scenes of chaos. Gasping for air, two men wearing oxygen masks shared a bed. People struggled to get oxygen and the attention of medics, themselves overwhelmed with the number of new patients.
Some relatives pleaded with me to diagnose their loved one, mistaking me for a doctor because I was wearing PPE gear. Others who saw my camera urged me to document the pain their family was suffering.
"We are definitely overburdened," Suresh Kumar, the hospital's medical director, told me at the time, as dozens of new patients arrived. "We are already working at the full capacity, (or) rather double of the capacity."
Since my April visit, the emergency has eased.
Kumar said this week hospital admissions had fallen from around 200 per day at the peak of the second wave to single digits, although the intensive care unit remained full as patients stayed in hospital for longer periods of time.
"We are more comfortable with the oxygen supply, we have enough drugs, we have better infrastructure, we have more ICU beds, we have more trained manpower and now we can handle any future wave," Kumar told Reuters by telephone.
A mass cremation of victims who died due to complications related to COVID-19.
Holy Family Hospital, another hospital in the Indian capital, where I documented a 27-hour workday shift of a junior doctor in early May, did not respond to a request for comment this week on its current situation.
At graveyards and crematoriums, the scenes were grim.
Mass cremations took place in crematorium parking lots to cope with the number of bodies, and the intense heat the pyres generated sometimes prevented me from getting close to take photographs and video.
At graveyards, multiple burials were held at the same time. On several occasions I put down my cameras to attend prayers, as I knew the victims being buried that day. I only found out about their deaths when I met common acquaintances there.
Relatives carry a man for treatment inside an emergency ward of a government-run hospital in Bijnor district.
I also visited rural areas, where some hospitals were close to collapsing under the number of patients seeking treatment for COVID-19.
At the emergency ward of Bijnor Government Hospital, four people with breathing difficulties died in front of me in less than an hour.
"There is no doubt about it, the number of infected persons is quite large," Ramakant Pandey, the top district official in Bijnor, told me on the day of my visit.
Manoj Sen, the medical superintendent of the hospital, this week said case numbers had fallen drastically.
"At that time we were not expecting the number of cases and we were also not prepared," he said. "There was a shortage of oxygen and manpower both. But now we are prepared well."
A woman is consoled by her children.
Some victims and their families stood out vividly.
Outside a mortuary, a brother and sister dressed in identical blue uniforms of the bank where they worked consoled their mother after their father died.
A man is consoled by his relative as he sees the body of his father, who died from complications related to COVID-19, before his burial.
At a graveyard, a young man wailed as he begged his recently deceased father for forgiveness, believing it was he who had given him the virus.
The pandemic has also brought out the best in people.
Rohan Aggarwal, 26, a resident doctor treating patients suffering from COVID-19, tends to a patient during his 27-hour shift at Holy Family Hospital. "Who to be saved, who not to be saved should be decided by God," said Aggarwal. "We are not made for that – we are just humans. But at this point in time, we are being made to do this."
Indians I have covered are doing extraordinary things, be it a 26-year-old doctor battling to save lives, or teams of Sikh volunteers dispensing free oxygen to people desperate to keep loved ones alive.
I have been a journalist for almost 14 years, witnessing tragedies around the globe.
A man walks after cremating his relative who died due to complications related to COVID-19.
But I never thought I would see misery and death on this scale in New Delhi, the city I grew up in. At the height of the COVID-19 surge in May, 448 people in the city died from the disease in a single day.
This is a battle with an invisible enemy, and it feels like there is nowhere to hide.
(Photo editing Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson; Video editing Marika Kochiashvili; Additional reporting and writing Alasdair Pal; Text editing Mike Collett-White and Jane Wardell)
1 / 18

Shayam Narayan is brought to the COVID-19 casualty ward by his family members in a rickshaw, at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital.
More from
Danish Siddiqui
Subscribe to the week’s best stories
Mining tin from the sea
Greece: witnessing the migration crisis
Editor’s choice
The Great Green Wall: China's farmers push back the desert one tree at a time
More Stories
Meet the U.S. students confronting racism, injustice and a pandemic
'For fallen souls' - A survivor says Myanmar fight must go on
Editor’s choice
Death in the Himalayas: Poverty, fear, stretched resources propel India’s COVID crisis
Editor’s choice
Getting up close with cicadas to find climate change clues
Editor’s choice
Generation Crisis: young Syrians come of age in a decade of conflict
Editor’s choice
From the streets of Tokyo, 22 residents weigh up the Olympic Games
I'd rather die than go back, Moroccan migrant boy tells Spanish soldier
Editor’s choice
Gaza girl survives Israeli strike that shattered her family and home
Gaza City
Editor’s choice
Japanese boxing nurse has Olympic dream crushed by COVID
Editor’s choice
On the edge of Moroccan desert, surfers give kids a taste of waves and freedom
Editor’s choice
27 hours: a life-and-death shift with a young doctor in COVID-hit India
New Delhi
Editor’s choice
Don't call us grannies: Meet Japan's senior cheer squad
Back to Top
We have updated our Privacy Statement. Before you continue, please read our new
Privacy Statement and familiarize yourself with the terms.
Follow UsLike UsFind Us Editor's Choice Interactive Behind the News Cultural Atlas Forces of Industry Living Planet Moment of History Perspective Shifting Society Tales of the Unexpected StoriesPhotographers Latest In Haiti, festive wakes and Voodoo undertakers help mourners say their last goodbyes Recommended The other Pakistan Follow UsLike UsFind UsSubscribeiPad AppAboutFAQsContactRSSBack to reuters.com