India’s coronavirus fight leaves other patients' lives in peril

Hundreds who travelled far from home for treatment of chronic conditions find themselves stranded and sidelined

This photograph taken on April 7, 2020 shows Sarayu Das's Son, a cancer patient, resting in a subway station outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Delhi. - The capacity of medical facilites around the world has been stretched by the surge of COVID-19 patients as outbreaks worsen in many countries. It can cause people with other life-threatening diseases to miss out on vital care -- especially in places like India, where healthcare systems are shakier. Dozens of people with serious medical conditions are camped outside India's national medical institute in tents set up by the Delhi government. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) / To go with FOCUS 'HEALTH-VIRUS-INDIA' by AISHWARYA KUMAR.

Anju Devi travelled to New Delhi in early March to consult specialists at India’s premier government hospital about her kidney disease. She planned to return to her home in Chhapra, in the eastern state of Bihar, within a week.

Five weeks later Ms Devi is still in India’s capital, trapped along with her lawyer husband, teenage son and 65-year-old-mother by a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

She is one of hundreds of patients with life-threatening diseases who had come from afar to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for free treatment but are now unable to go home because all transport services have been shut.

At the same time, hospitals have been focusing on treating India's growing number of coronavirus cases, extending the waiting time for other patients. The government on Friday extended the lockdown for a second time, until May 17, after a sudden surge in infections. The country has detected nearly 40,000 Covid-19 cases, of which more than 4,000 are in Delhi. More than 1,300 people have died from the disease, including 64 in the capital.

Before the lockdown, about 8,000 people came to AIIMS every day for treatment, many of them with life-threatening illnesses who cannot get adequate care in India’s smaller cities and remote villages. The hospital offers consultations and some tests free of charge, although patients have to pay for medicines.

But for many poor patients, who often borrow or sell their possessions to raise money for the journey to Delhi and the medicines, paying for accommodation in the city during their treatment is beyond them.

This photograph taken on April 7, 2020 shows wife of 38-year-old patient Upender Safi (C) pushing his wheelchair at a night shelter setup by Delhi government outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Delhi. - The capacity of medical facilites around the world has been stretched by the surge of COVID-19 patients as outbreaks worsen in many countries. It can cause people with other life-threatening diseases to miss out on vital care -- especially in places like India, where healthcare systems are shakier. Dozens of people with serious medical conditions are camped outside India's national medical institute in tents set up by the Delhi government. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) / To go with FOCUS 'HEALTH-VIRUS-INDIA' by AISHWARYA KUMAR.

Like other patients with no place to stay, Ms Devi has accepted shelter in one of the white tarpaulin tents set up outside the hospital. Inside, scores of beds are packed together. The sheets and floor are dirty and a smell of medicines, sweat and grime hangs in the air.

"There is always a fear of infection. I need to use the bathroom several times a day but the toilets are dirty. I wish I could go back home," she told The National.

In the meantime she still needs dialysis regularly, which her family has to pay for at a private clinic. Each session costs about 3,000 rupees (Dh150), a large sum for Ms Devi’s family, who borrowed from relatives and friends to bring her to AIIMS.

“All our money is drying up on private treatment and we are stuck here,” she said.

The tents were set up by local authorities this past winter as night shelters for the homeless. Meals are provided twice a day – mostly lentil soup and rice. But without fans or ventilation and summer approaching, Manju Devi finds the heat inside unbearable.

The frail 41-year-old cancer patient prefers to spend the days under a ledge at a nearby metro station as she waits for her next round of chemotherapy at AIIMS, returning to the tents only at night.

"Medicines make my body hot. I am always tired and sleepy but cannot bear lying inside the tent. I feel suffocated," she told The National.

“At night there are mosquitos, hundreds of mosquitos ... I cannot sleep. And during the day, I sit outside under the shade. For the last two months, this has become my daily routine.”

This photograph taken on April 7, 2020 shows wife of 38-year-old patient Upender Safi (C) helps him to get on his bed at a night shelter setup by Delhi government outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in New Delhi. - The capacity of medical facilites around the world has been stretched by the surge of COVID-19 patients as outbreaks worsen in many countries. It can cause people with other life-threatening diseases to miss out on vital care -- especially in places like India, where healthcare systems are shakier. Dozens of people with serious medical conditions are camped outside India's national medical institute in tents set up by the Delhi government. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) / To go with FOCUS 'HEALTH-VIRUS-INDIA' by AISHWARYA KUMAR.

Ms Devi came to Delhi in December with her husband, a tailor, after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They left their only child at their home in Jhasi district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

She has undergone three rounds of chemotherapy, the last one in mid-April. She hopes to get her fourth treatment this month but it has not been confirmed.

In one of the tents outside the hospital, Sheikh Mohammad, 65, watches over his 7-year-old grandson, Ayan, who suffers from a rare neurological condition.

Ayan's family, from the eastern state of Odisha, brought him here for tests and he was scheduled for an operation on March 26. The government imposed its lockdown one day earlier, and Ayan’s surgery has been postponed indefinitely.

“He passes out, at times froth comes out of his mouth. He is weak and doesn’t get milk daily. If the trains were running, we would have taken him home,” Mr Mohammad said.

"It is painful to see him suffering in this heat," he said. "We cannot feed him fruits or milk – at least we could feed him a proper diet back home."  
"I thought he would be healthy at last," said Ayan's mother, Salma Khatoon. "I was hopeful but now, I don't know when he'll get operated. We are counting down the days.

“We have no money left as my husband is not able to work. We are living off charity.”

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