NEW DELHI – In India’s capital city New Delhi, the silence is punctuated by the wail of ambulance sirens as patients are rushed to hospitals or bodies taken from hospitals to crematoriums.
Traffic is otherwise sparse on the city’s erstwhile congested and noisy roads due to a week-long lockdown that started on Monday to stem the deadliest Covid-19 wave to hit the city and country.
By noon, ambulance driver Ganga Singh Yadav, 42, had taken six bodies from the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital to the nearest crematorium.
“The first wave is nothing compared with what we are seeing today,” said Mr Yadav as he drove away, unwilling to stop even for a second.
Like him, another ambulance driver, who gave his name only as Dheeraj, has not been picking up patients as he has no supply of oxygen in his ambulance and due to the severe shortage of hospital beds.
Some 27 Covid-19 intensive care unit beds were vacant in Delhi yesterday, according to Indian media reports.
“We don’t have oxygen and patients who need to come to the hospital need oxygen. So we can’t pick them up,” said Dheeraj as he waited outside the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.
In another part of the city, Mr Jitender Singh Shunty, president of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, a non-governmental organisation which runs the free ambulance service in Delhi, gets endless calls on his phone from desperate family members needing to take a loved one to hospital or the crematorium.
“Yesterday, we transported 78 bodies. On average, we are transporting 40 to 50 bodies to the crematoriums,” he said, sitting outside the Seelampur crematorium.
He has slept in his car for the past five days to prevent infecting his family members, as he coordinates 18 ambulances and sometimes goes on ambulance runs with volunteers, who are now all trained in sanitising bodies and helping grieving family members.
“Sometimes tears come to your eyes. The level of suffering in previous waves is nothing compared with what we are seeing now.”
On Monday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced that the city was going into lockdown, with the health system having “reached its limit”.
Delhi is dealing with a fourth wave of Covid-19, fuelled by deadlier and more infectious variants.
On Tuesday, it registered a new high of 28,395 fresh cases and 277 deaths. A number of high-profile politicians including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh is among those who have tested positive.
India also saw its deadliest day yet, with 2,000 deaths.
For Delhi, a sense of deja vu has set in after the 21-day national lockdown last year and a sense that very little has changed since the pandemic began. On every major road, the police have put up barricades, occasionally pulling over cars to query their occupants about why they are on the road.
While most people appear to be complying with the lockdown, on one road in Central Delhi, colourful children’s kiddie pools are laid out on the footpath.
Mr Ram, who does not want to give his last name, risks being hauled up by the police as only essential services are allowed to operate, but he desperately hopes that someone will buy a swimming pool for their child. Around him, all other shops are shut.
He said: “I have to make a living somehow. I can’t afford to sit at home.”