How the raging coronavirus pandemic is tearing families apartThe government’s inefficiency and apathy towards handling the virus crisis has made things much more challenging for people infected with Covid-19.
On May 6, when Shanta Ratna Bajracharya stood alone at the gate outside Pashupati Aryaghat, he cut a lonely figure.
Shanta’s hands clasped the thin bars of the gate that separated him and his mother’s dead body, which was wrapped in plastic and lying on the ground.
The cremation site was busy that day with multiple pyres burning simultaneously. Cries of people who had gathered in the area to bid their loved ones a final goodbye wailed in the air. Broken and tired, Shanta struggled to cry to let out the unbearable ache he carried in his heart.
The day his mother was cremated, Nepal recorded 8,605 cases and 54 deaths due to the coronavirus.
Watching his mother’s pyre was emotionally challenging, but Shanta had little time to process his loss. But his thoughts kept drifting to his family members at home. As soon as he finished the ritual, Shanta hurried home.
Except for his daughter, his whole family (which now has 10 members) was struggling with Covid-19. To make matters worse, a week ago, the oxygen level of three of his family members–his wife, his elder brother, and his younger brother’s wife–dropped to dangerous levels.
“We were all staying at home and the situation was normal but then suddenly things took a turn for the worse,” says Shanta. “One after another, everyone tested positive. And everyone showed different symptoms. Taking care of each other has been very difficult and it hasn’t helped at all that our country’s healthcare system has completely crumbled. Enduring this reality has been ugly.”
As the coronavirus outbreak spreads fast and unevenly across the Valley and the country, families, like Shanta’s, have been struggling and finding it increasingly difficult to cope with Covid-19’s harsh reality.
The first step to contain the spread of the virus–isolation–in itself is challenging to maintain, say family members the Post talked to. Many family members have had to make the difficult choice of locking themselves up or their family members for the safety of the other family members and some have had to accept the risks involved while taking care of their loved ones. In these harrowing hours, time and again many families going through Covid-19 have felt helpless.
In Shanta’s family, it was he who first tested positive to Covid-19.
“I tested Covid-19 positive six days before Kathmandu went into lockdown and I isolated myself right away,”says Shanta.
Three days later, his wife, his elder brother and his wife also tested positive. After a few days, his younger brother’s wife too was infected. The family members isolated in their rooms and tried their best to not come in contact with each other.
Their 82-year-old mother, who wasn’t very well, was shifted to the top floor of the house to avoid contact.
“Despite taking utmost precaution and maintaining distance, almost everyone in the family contracted the infection. It just seems this time the virus is stronger and different from before,” says Shanta.
After Shanta tested negative, he started taking care of his mother, whose health had worsened.
“A month ago, my mother suddenly stopped eating. She already had breathing problems and was kept on oxygen support at home,” says Shanta. “Soon, it wasn’t just our mother who needed oxygen support. A few days after testing positive, three of my family members’ oxygen level got low and they had to be kept on constant oxygen support,” says Shanta. “The ones who could sit up were constantly on the phone trying to arrange for oxygen cylinders. Those were very anxious days.”
One night, his mother’s health deteriorated, and a distressed Shanta spent hours frantically calling phone numbers provided by the government hoping to get an ambulance.
“Each and every person on the line kept referring to me to call somebody else. It was so frustrating. At 11 pm, a relative was able to arrange an ambulance and we headed to Vayodha Hospital. When we reached the hospital, the staff refused to attend to my mother,” says Shanta recalling his horror. “They kept insisting it’s a Covid case and they will not be able to take the patient. No one would even touch her let alone assist her.”
That night, as his mother waited in the ambulance, Shanta nervously watched her oxygen cylinder’s level depleting as he called each and every major hospital in the city. At 2 am, he was at Norvic Hospital pleading with doctors there to take his mother in. It was only after an X-ray scan to check for pneumonia did the hospital finally take her in.
Soon after his mother was admitted, the doctors informed him she needed to be kept in the ICU but they had no ICU room available in the hospital.
“At 2 pm in the afternoon, we finally got a room. I sat with my mother and held her hands for what must have been an hour and half before she passed away,” he says.
Things still have been far from over for the family. Two members of the family still require constant oxygen support and the family has been struggling to ensure a steady supply of oxygen.
The family feels fortunate to have Dr Sanjiv Hyoju, a US-based surgeon and researcher, to turn to for medical advice. Hyoju’s medical guidance, says Shanta, has been crucial in the family’s battle against Covid-19.
“We have been very fortunate that way as we know many are having a very difficult time even getting medical consultations and appointments,” says Manjushree Bajracharya, Shanta’s elder brother. “In the last few weeks, I have experienced firsthand our government’s inefficiency and apathy and we have seen corruption very closely. Loved ones of ailing Nepalis today are being forced to buy medicines at exorbitant prices. It’s extremely unfortunate that for some people, the pandemic has become more of an opportunity to loot people. We have already spent over Rs 500,000 on treatment.”
Today Shanta is understandably angry and frustrated.
“KP Sharma Oli seems to think ‘everything is under control’. Someone should bring him to Pashupati Aryaghat to see the dozens of corpses that arrive everyday there. He should visit hospitals to see family members pleading for help to save their loved ones. This government failed miserably and what hurts the most is that it isn’t even bothered by its failure,” says Shanta.
Nearly two weeks after prohibition orders were enforced in the Valley, the number of daily cases hasn’t decreased and sounds of ambulance sirens wailing have now become common. And news of insufficient oxygen and hospital beds have been all over the media. The failure of the system has made it more difficult for families suffering from Covid-19 to keep their spirits high up in their fight against the virus.
For Dr Mahananda Chalise’s family, these harrowing times have been about trying to keep themselves hopeful. “It gets exhausting when there is simply no good news to look up to,” he says. “The uncertainty has been too much to take.”
A week before the lockdown, Chalise had travelled to attend an academic meeting outside the Valley. His wife and younger daughter also accompanied him on the trip. And a few days after they returned home, all three of them tested positive to Covid-19.
Among the three, however, Chalise had shown more severe symptoms of cough, body soreness, extreme exhaustion, chest pain and fever. There were times when he would have a strong aversion to food and vomit.
“These are very depressing times and it's important that those infected with Covid-19 focus less on all the terrible news and try to stay positive,” he says. “We need to have a strong mental grit to fight the virus.”
However, Chalise is well aware of people’s anger at the government's handling of the crisis.
“The government has failed miserably. It isn’t even conducting contact tracing, or trying to find ways to help people,” says Chalise.
While the virus has taken loved ones away from many people, for some, they have had no option but to lie to their family members of their infection so as to not worry them.
Twenty-five-year-old Tripty, who the Post is identifying only with her first name to protect her privacy, has not revealed to her family she has tested positive for Covid-19 in fear that in these grim times her family will be more stressed and worried.
“I would have told them but given all the terrible news of how our health system has failed to take care of infected people, I don’t want them to worry. And what if they decide to come visit me and in the process they get infected as well? It’s just too risky right now. Everyone needs to stay home, stay safe and healthy,” says Tripty, who tested positive to Covid-19 a few days before the lockdown.
So far Tripty has experienced mild shortness of breath, cough, fever, body soreness and diarrhoea. But in front of her parents, who live outside the Valley, she pretends to be doing well.
“Only my sisters know about my health,” says Tripty.
Many are now living in a perpetual fear of contracting the virus. And there’s also the uncertainty of not knowing when things will get back to normal.
When fifty-seven-year-old Sushila Shakya recovered from Covid-19 four weeks ago and got discharged from the hospital, she hoped for things to get better. At the time, the country was recording much fewer daily Covid-19 cases.
Shakya lost her mother to Covid-19 in early April. But even before Shakya could mourn her loss, her whole family got infected by the virus and that forced everyone to stay in isolation, which was easier said than done, she says.
And unlike what she had heard about Covid-19 before, of how the main symptoms include cough and high fever, Shakya found herself experiencing severe shortness of breath just a few days after testing positive.
She didn’t even have the strength to speak. And many of her loved ones had to keep their distance from her.
“It was excruciating for my family members,” she says. “I didn’t think things would once again be back to the way they were in 2020. It’s heartbreaking to see families everywhere going through what we just went through,” she says.
Shakya and her family members are only finally coping with the grief of losing their mother to Covid-19. And as the family mourns together, they just hope the pandemic ends soon.
“I hope nobody has to go through what we as a family went through. I hope and pray for things to get better–for stories like ours not to repeat again,” she says. “I hope that there are better days ahead for all of us.”