The rapid spike in covid cases and the number of deaths in India during April and May shocked the country – and the world – as the grim reality of this deadly virus was once again highlighted.

Arete photographer Vijay Pandey recounts his experiences documenting India’s deadly second wave for Arete in Delhi.

Arete photographer Vijay Pandey

With almost half of India’s 30 million Covid-19 cases coming in April and May alone, the country’s health services were completely overwhelmed and under-equipped to deal with the exponential rise in infections.

I have lived and worked in New Delhi for nearly two decades and have covered the pandemic since it first started to take hold in the spring of 2020, both in New Delhi and in surrounding districts. While always very careful to take safety precautions – gloves, double masks, disinfectant and eye protection – I still consider myself incredibly lucky not to have contracted the virus, or to have had any close friends or family die or fall seriously ill. I do know, however, that several photojournalists have died in India during the pandemic, some of them former colleagues from the field.

Crematorium staff oversee the cremation of Covid-19 victims at the Ghazipur crematorium in New Delhi, India, May 2021.

In May, while on assignment for the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) and Arete, I travelled to several locations in New Delhi to document the effects of the deadly second wave that was sweeping the city. The DEC, which is made up of 14 of the UK’s leading aid charities, launches emergency appeals when disasters strike the world’s most vulnerable communities. It has been on the frontline responding to the crisis in India, taking the lead on emergency fundraising in the UK to deliver medical supplies, treatment facilities and logistics support quickly to overwhelmed health facilities.

Funeral pyres laid out at the Ghazipur crematorium in New Delhi, India, May 2021.

The DEC’s Coronavirus Appeal has been funding emergency work in fragile states during the pandemic, and was extended to cover India in April when the unprecedented scale of the second wave became clear. The organisation has been responsible for distributing things like water and soap in vulnerable communities and helping to ensure that the pandemic does not lead to children going hungry or becoming malnourished in these areas.

Khalsa Help International volunteers check oxygen levels of patients infected with Covid-19 at Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, New Delhi, India, May 2021.

I was asked to photograph and interview victims’ families and frontline workers at several locations in the city, including the Ghazipur and Nigambodh Cremation Grounds, and the LNJP Hospital and Khalsa Help International centre in Ghaziabad to the east of the city to photograph the scale and severity of the crisis. All of these places are located in traditionally vulnerable neighbourhoods, with fewer economic opportunities for citizens and weaker basic housing and sanitation infrastructure. As a result, all were badly hit during the recent wave, with the number of dead bodies being brought into the Ghazipur crematorium reportedly 10 times the usual figure at its peak.

A volunteer of the NGO, Khalsa Help international, gives CPR therapy to a Covid-19 patient gasping for breath at a tent installed at a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in Ghaziabad, India on May 6, 2021.

I have covered many stories of violence and suffering in India, while working as a photojournalist, including the Delhi riots in 2020, bomb attacks in the capital in 2008 and 2010 and conflicts between Maoist insurgents and central government forces in Chhattisgarh State in central India. But despite this, and although I have been covering the pandemic for over a year, I had never seen anything like the scenes captured in these photographs. I saw people struggling to breath, gasping for breath and dying in front of me. One of these was a 14-year-old girl who passed away as her parents looked on helplessly.

Sarita tries to contact her husband, Suresh Kumar, who has been admitted in a Covid-19 ward, while sitting outside the main gate of LNJP hospital in New Delhi, India, May 2021. Entry to Covid-19 hospital wards and isolation facilities is strictly barred, even to the families of the patients, to prevent the spread of infection.
A man carries oxygen cylinders on a scooter in New Delhi, India, May 2021.

It was my first time visiting Ghazipur, a very deprived slum area in the East Delhi district, the sort of area where the city’s crematoriums are almost always located. The crematorium staff had been working non-stop, with more and more bodies arriving each day. As frontline workers they have all received at least one vaccine. However, many of their family members have not, a big concern for these men who understand, more clearly than most, the devastating scale of this crisis.

Dinesh waits to collect the belongings of his father after his death, which were left inside LNJP hospital in New Delhi, India, May 2021. His father died on May 4, 2021 due to Covid-19.

Dinesh waits to collect the belongings of his father after his death, which were left inside LNJP hospital in New Delhi, India, May 2021. His father died on May 4, 2021 due to Covid-19.

Health workers in PPE inside a temporary Covid Care Centre set up at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital in May 2021 in New Delhi, India.
A health worker puts on protective gear before entering a temporary Covid Care Centre set up at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital in New Delhi, India, May 2021. The massive rise in infections in the second wave of the pandemic led to hospitals in several states reeling under a shortage of medical oxygen and beds.

The responsibility for this devastating wave has been laid squarely at the feet of the central government by the local communities. Mostly they blame the rallies held ahead of the local elections in April, while other factors include the ongoing farmers protest around the borders of Delhi as well as the major religious festivals that were allowed to go ahead earlier in the year.

Looking at the scenes I photographed in Ghazipur it is astonishing that the government could have been so short-sighted. It is also remarkable just how all-encompassing this wave has been – while last year things went relatively smoothly in the battle against the pandemic, this wave has stretched the healthcare system to breaking point – and beyond – with even the city’s wealthy struggling to get hold of oxygen.

A father watches the funeral of his 42 year old son, who died from Covid-19 within 6 days of infection, at Nigambodh cremation ground in New Delhi, India on May 6, 2021.

The worst appears to have now peaked and thankfully any vaccine hesitancy seems to have been dispelled by the horrific scenes over the last few weeks. The next challenge will lie in making sure everyone has access to one – although vaccines have been announced for over 18-year-olds, there is a currently a shortage, with the online booking system confusing and difficult to navigate. Moreover with 70% of people in India living in rural areas I have a horrible sense that we are far from out of the woods yet.

Family members of a Covid-19 victim carry the body into the Nigambodh Cremation Ground in New Delhi, India, May 2021.

Footnotes

All text and photos by Vijay Pandey