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Death in the Himalayas: Poverty, fear, stretched resources propel India's COVID crisis

Berita 24 English -  Pramila Devi's shrouded body lay on a bier on a muddy Ganges bank, resting on a rock. The 36-year-old mother of thr...

Berita 24 English - 
Pramila Devi's shrouded body lay on a bier on a muddy Ganges bank, resting on a rock.

The 36-year-old mother of three died the previous night in Uttarakhand, a mountainous state in northern India. She had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before.

Devi's death on Sunday demonstrates how poverty, fear, and a lack of infrastructure contribute to COVID-19 fatalities in remote villages, where many residents avoid testing for fear of testing positive and being forced to travel to a hospital far from home.

According to May 26 federal government data, India's COVID-19 caseload is 27.16 million, with 311,388 deaths. However, some experts believe the number is significantly higher, owing to low testing rates in India's hinterlands, where COVID-19 cases are rapidly spreading.

Devi's eldest daughter married and relocated in late April, following a ceremony attended by more than two dozen people, her husband Suresh Kumar, 43, told Reuters.

Devi developed diarrhoea two weeks later. However, Kumar, who has no income and relies on handouts, did not take her to a nearby dispensary converted into a small COVID-19 facility with four beds until ten days later.

According to Aishwary Anand, the dispensary's sole physician has one oxygen cylinder and one concentrator.

Devi was found to be positive for COVID-19 despite having deficient blood oxygen levels. Anand advised Kumar to transfer her to a larger hospital, but the financial implications were prohibitive.

The couple returned home, where their two other children awaited them: a 16-year-old boy and a 10
year-old girl.

The following day, Devi's nephew assisted her in boarding a creaky taxi that took her back to the dispensary. Another patient utilised the oxygen cylinder, and the oxygen concentrator was rendered inoperative due to a power outage.

"We require electricity," Anand pleaded over the phone with an electricity department employee as he paced the dispensary wearing white protective gear.

Devi eventually regained access to the concentrator and felt well enough to return home. However, when she became ill again, her family summoned an ambulance to transport her back to the clinic, where she was pronounced dead upon arrival.

"I have not yet informed my eldest daughter of her mother's death," a distraught Kumar explained as he knelt on the Ganges banks.


As of May 25, the state of Uttarakhand, which borders China and Nepal, reported 45,568 COVID-19 cases and 6,020 fatalities.

Its capital city of Haridwar recently hosted the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, which saw hundreds of thousands of ash-smeared ascetics and devout Hindus jostle for a dip in the Ganges, which is revered as a holy river.

According to some experts, the event may have resulted in increased COVID-19 infections in both the crowded city and other parts of India as devotees returned home.

On the outskirts of Haridwar, Uttarakhand's Pauri Garhwal district – where Devi's family resides – has reported 5,155 cases of COVID-19 and 241 deaths. However, residents and doctors report that many people in the district who exhibit COVID-like symptoms refuse to be tested or are tested too late.

"We've launched radio and newspaper campaigns to raise awareness about COVID and to encourage testing," Manoj Kumar Sharma, the district's top health official, explained. "However, despite our efforts, there is some resistance to testing in rural areas."

Reuters reporters spent over an hour hiking uphill with medics to reach Pitha, a village in the district with no road access.

There, 38-year-old Jai Prakash pleaded with his neighbours to have him tested. Despite his appeals, a dozen of the village's nearly 60 residents did as he requested.

Only nine of the approximately 200 residents of the nearby village of Tangroli – which has been declared a COVID-19 containment zone due to the presence of more than a dozen positive patients – showed up for testing on the same day a medical team camped outside their village.

"My neighbour was adamant about not being tested," said Deepak Singh, who works in New Delhi but recently returned to his village. "He inquired as to whether I would be willing to cover his household expenses if he tested positive."

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