India’s towns and villages overwhelmed as Covid-19 fatalities worsen

Police clamp down as citizens complain of oxygen shortages and pyres run out of wood

Having devastated major Indian cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, among numerous others, the country's second Covid-19 pandemic wave is overwhelming many smaller towns and villages that were largely free of the virus.

News reports from across the country reveal that the terror, chaos and panic wreaked by the virus in larger metropolises have transferred to lesser townships and rural communities, many of which are short of medical facilities, doctors and even paramedics.

Tens of millions of people have fled to their rural homes from cities across India, many carrying the virus back with them.

Some said they had no choice but to return home given the lack of information provided by prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration, regarding a possible nationwide lockdown as India's daily cases on Thursday topped 380,000.


All of them were desperate to forestall the trauma they faced last year following the countrywide shutdown imposed by the BJP government with just four hours’ notice, after which all transport services were suspended.

This resulted in droves of indigent workers either walking or cycling hundreds of kilometres home to rural India. Hundreds died en route of fatigue or hunger.

"I am willing to face the virus at home rather than in callous cities, where people are dying hourly on the streets," said Ram Pal from Raebareli, a small town in northern Uttar Pradesh state, India's most populous and fast emerging as one of the worst pandemic-affected regions.

‘Fear or alarm’

Mr Pal’s largely rural district, like more than 155 other virus-afflicted regions across India, had neither hospitals nor virus-testing facilities, oxygen, medicines or even qualified medics to cope with the pandemic.

On Wednesday, police in Mr Pal’s adjoining Amethi district formally charged a 26-year-old resident for tweeting a request for an oxygen cylinder for his grandfather, who died a few hours later.

In their formal complaint, police accused Shashank Yadav of spreading rumours regarding oxygen shortages with “intent to cause fear or alarm”.

The police were following instructions issued earlier in the week by state BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who called upon authorities to arrest anyone suspected of rumour-mongering and propaganda and to seize their property.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Indians around the country continued trying to find hospital beds, oxygen and medicines for their virus-infected relatives.

Crematoriums in Delhi ran out of firewood on Thursday to immolate hundreds of coronavirus victims in keeping with Hindu and Sikh religious practice, and were resorting to whatever kindling they could find.

The forest department has given special permission to contractors to fell trees in the city to make good this firewood shortfall, as the capital lights up at night with funeral pyres.

Understated death toll

Analysts said the number of cremations and burials of virus victims across the country suggested a death toll some 25-30 times higher than the overall official Indian fatality count of about 200,000.

But the BJP government disagreed. In an official statement on Wednesday, it said that “statistics indicate that, far from crashing or performing slowly, the system is performing without any glitches”.

Social media was awash with Hindu priests promoting the efficacy of cow urine in warding off coronavirus.

In March 2020, shortly after the virus surfaced in India, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (All India Hindu Union) that is linked to the BJP hosted a gathering to ingest cow urine at its headquarters in Delhi, to propagate it as a virus preventive.

Hindus consider cows to be holy, and in a series of video clips Hindu holy men on Thursday claimed that cow urine was guaranteed to stop the Covid-19 virus.

They also asked the BJP government to sell “beneficial” cow urine at the country’s international airports, instead of selling liquor at duty free shops.

Previously, senior BJP leaders have promoted the properties of cow urine, which they claim cures not only cancer and destroys germs but also prevents ageing.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi