Dr Vidit Panchal
The COVID Mortuary
We emptied our COVID ward two days ago. Trusting the world’s incompetence at learning and planning, I can say that we will have to reopen it in some time. Still, an empty ward is a sight I never imagined could be this pacifying.
The COVID ward in Shaheed Hospital, Dalli Rajhara, Chhattisgarh saw an overwhelming number of stories with all possible outcomes during the last two and a half months. The stories aren’t different from what you’ve been seeing on TV and perhaps have lived as well because I am sure someone from your family also might have struggled for breaths. Their scripts, though, have more content than stories elsewhere.
The number of patients we lost in April-May 2021 exceeded twice the number we usually lose in an entire year. The number of people we had to turn away exceeded the numbers we treated. What made it worse was knowing that the person I am denying admission to was not going to get admission elsewhere. The injustice that laughed at a patient dying inside the ward due to delayed admission and no vaccination, laughed harder at the patient who was turned away from the hospital’s gate. There was less time to treat, even lesser time to mourn and literally no time to let all of this sink in.
In a short period of time, I have moved from being terrified to being numbed by the flow of patients in and out of the mortuary. On one such night of numbness, standing outside the mortuary and gazing at the corpses through a narrow window, I happened to realize that there were a few additional chambers. The lowermost chamber was for the corpse of Humanitarian Politics. She had died well before the pandemic set in but I saw her ready for the last rites for the first time. She was all bones and no skin and it looked like the vultures had had their fun with her. The chamber adjacent to it was for Global Solidarity. He was kept suited up in Armani, for his last wish was to look good at the outset even after death. A thousand pages of conspiracy theories kept bundled near his head, he had shoes brought in from the United Nation' s (UN) office. The suit covered the cracks he had in his skin, the shoes covered gangrenous feet. People whispered it was a suicide.
The chamber above had Scientific Temperament lying in a rugged coat. He lived a secret life in India, kept working silently and the moment he tried to come out, he was lynched to death. Witnesses say he screamed a lot. But no one came to help. It indeed was disheartening. The chamber next to it had Social Solidarity. She wore clothes of all colors, all stained in blood. She was stabbed multiple times on news channels for days and ultimately died of shock. No method of resuscitation worked.
There was no corpse in the smallest chamber in the corner, but there was a large stack of legal papers. They were health-related political promises. They were extremely neat and attractive. I'm hoping they'll be preserved and found sometime in future.
Above that was ‘Privilege.' He assisted individuals in getting to the emergency rooms faster than anybody else. He made every effort to obscure political gaffes and injustices. But he succumbed as well, since he was frail in his creation and snatching someone else's oxygen had its limits. To be honest, I wasn't too disappointed with the plight of this chamber.
‘Trust’ was in one of the upper chambers. He put up a valiant fight. It was a tough battle. However, he died as a result of internal injuries. He made an effort to keep doctors and patients together. He attempted to convince people that healing is a collaborative effort involving equal participation. However, he developed increasing ischemia and finally succumbed.
Aside from them, a mound of bodies lay behind the mortuary. All of the hopes for healthcare equity were interred in that very mound; perhaps poisoned. They weren't even able to get to the mortuary.
In a rural-tribal area like ours, mortuaries do always have these extra chambers. It's just that they almost never make it to a national register. The moment a patient is received in the Emergency Room (ER) or Out-Patient Department (OPD), his or her odds of survival are determined by all of the circumstances that contributed to the death of the above-mentioned entities. Every step of the treatment therefore becomes a battle against injustice, which has occurred and continues to occur. In a privileged urban setting where all the demigods of healthcare and politics dwell, these fights find no space. The struggle to provide quality care in difficult areas goes on in its traditional way, only this time the pandemic catalyzed the rate at which it consumed its participants.
This prompts me to mention another chamber in the mortuary. The one at the top. It's still vacant. It's where I keep my faith, which in the hearts of hearts tells me that everything will work out for the better in the end. My faith, that those who died were not all sinners and the people who lost someone have something good coming their way. That universe will compensate for this in some way. My belief that all the efforts, regardless of the outcomes, will make the society learn something.
A hope that this last chamber remains empty just like our COVID Ward.
About the Author:
Dr Vidit Panchal is a family medicine practitioner working in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh at a secondary care hospital. His hobbies include writing poems, articles and taking part in street plays.