A photo collage with a photo of Shakuntala and a childhood photo of Gabriella Symms' father holding her as an infant.
Official records state that nearly 200,000 Indians died during the second wave. Photos courtesy: Stuti Shankar and Gabriella Symms


‘Was It as Bad as I Remember It?’ The Second Wave of COVID-19 Has Deeply Scarred Indians

'It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.'

“When I was younger, I asked my grandpa a lot of questions. So he called me his ‘Little Osho,” Amrita Thakkar, a copywriter based in the United States, said. After her grandfather passed away in May this year — during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India — she knew she would never hear the term of endearment again. “These little things hit the hardest.” 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, India has recorded over four million deaths according to a study. While official records state that nearly 200,000 of these deaths took place just over two months ago — in April and May, when the second wave of the pandemic peaked. Major cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Delhi recorded thousands of deaths each day, some of which were caused due to a critical lack of timely medical resources, including oxygen, while hospitals turned patients away and bodies overflowed on the roads. 

Stuti Shankar’s grandmother Shakuntala became part of the damning statistics as India reported nearly 300,000 cases daily at its peak.

After Shankuntala tested positive for COVID-19, the family sourced an oxygen cylinder, a precious commodity at the time, as her oxygen levels were dropping. Despite getting the cylinder, they had to shift her to a hospital since the oxygen wasn’t sufficient. However, it took a very long time for them to find an ambulance equipped with an oxygen cylinder to transport her. She passed away soon after they reached the hospital. “We don’t know if she would have made it if we got an ambulance earlier, but it is hard not to wonder,” 25-year-old Shankar told Re:Set. 

A photo of the Symms family — parents and their two daughters against a rustic, sepia background reminiscent of an old photo album

Despite their differences, Symss was always thankful for how supportive her father was, especially with the life decisions she made.

With the dust settling on India’s second wave — a time marked by overflowing crematoriums and burial grounds, citizens scrambling for basic medical resources, and ever increasing cases — Indians are only now processing and grieving the loss of their loved ones. This includes 24-year-old Gabriella Symss, who lost her father, Christopher Symss, on May 27. 

She recollects the day she and her younger sister stood alone at their father’s burial in Bengaluru, that too at a distance. Her mother and grandmother couldn’t attend since they were recovering from COVID-19 themselves. Many families who lost their loved ones were not allowed to say their goodbyes due to the highly infectious nature of the virus. The dead were routinely buried or cremated by ambulance drivers, crematorium workers or volunteers. “It felt like he was robbed of his dignity,” Symss told Re:Set.

It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.’

Months after the loss of family members, many Indians are grappling with a diverse range of emotions. Guilt, anger, sadness and fear are some of the strongest. “When I was younger, seeing my dad’s Royal Enfield parked outside is how I knew if he was home or not,” Symss said. “Now every time I see a Royal Enfield parked outside a house, for a moment I think my dad is home.” 

For Thakkar, who was in a different country when her grandfather passed, the process has been longer. After learning about his death, she felt a sense of numbness and shock. She went to meet extended family who lived nearby. “I walked without direction for an hour after reaching my uncle’s house,” she said. When Thakkar realized she had been walking aimlessly and was in an unfamiliar place, she was overwhelmed. “I broke down and cried for a while then,” she said.

When a recent statement by the Indian government claimed that there were no deaths in the country due to oxygen shortage, Shankar was livid. “I remember those calls and WhatsApp messages from people begging for oxygen,” she said. Immediately after coming across the statement, she began doubting her memory. “Did I dream it up? Was it even as bad as I remember it?” Shankar re-read messages where everyone around her was desperately looking for oxygen, forcing her to relive her trauma. 

The downplaying of the pandemic by authorities while dealing with the immense grief of losing family and friends has left Shanker exhausted. “What more will it take for things to change?” she asked. “It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Also read: How to Deal With the Grief of Losing Someone to COVID-19 When the World Seems to Be Moving On

Above all the dejection and pain comes in having to let go and move forward. “I don’t think I will realize that my grandfather is dead unless I go to our Mumbai house and see that he is not on the computer as usual,” Thakkar said. She went to a temple in Chicago in a bid to let go of her grief, denial and the idea of aliveness. 

Symss tries to envision a future without her father. “Birthdays, anniversaries, no matter what important event happens, I will never be able to take a photo with my dad again,” she said. “More than anything, I will miss how my dad was always proud of me.”

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‘Was It as Bad as I Remember It?’ The Second Wave of COVID-19 Has Deeply Scarred Indians