World ABC South Asia correspondent James Oaten reflects on a confronting assignment inside a COVID-19 intensive care ward in India

23:56  16 april  2021
23:56  16 april  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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I'm sitting on a plane flying from Nagpur to Delhi and I'm filled with anger.

I can see a young man, maybe in his mid to late twenties, sitting there without his mask on despite having been reminded by a stewardess to put it on properly just a few moments earlier.

There's also a couple of blokes sitting nearby with their noses foolishly sticking out of their masks, something I have seen a lot of recently.

I, on the other hand, am sitting in the packed aircraft with two face masks on, including an N95 mask, a face shield, and a pocket stuffed with hand sanitiser.

I have just spent the past two days in Nagpur, one of the worst-hit cities amid India's disastrous second surge, to film inside a COVID-19 intensive care ward.

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During my tour, the doctor accompanying me pointed out four people who were not going to survive the infection.

It included a 33-year-old mother, who had just given birth 10 days prior.

"Everybody is vulnerable," infectious disease expert Nitin Shinde warned.

"We're seeing patients as [young] as 14 years old."

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I have reported extensively on the pandemic, including speaking with those who have lost loved ones and healthcare workers who have given it their all to fight COVID-19.

But to see the virus taking a life before your eyes is confronting. To be in a room knowing that same virus is around you, despite wearing protective gear, is also confronting.

You can probably now understand why I was furious at the man without the mask.

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But this man's stupidity or arrogance is far from an isolated incident.

India, after overcoming its first surge, slipped into bad habits and attitudes, igniting the disaster that we now see unfolding across the country.

Making matters worse is these bad habits have continued despite passing more than 217,000 daily infections, a national record for India, and a death toll so vicious that buses and rubbish trucks are being used to carry bodies.

Right now, there are millions of Hindu pilgrims packed along riverbanks for one of the largest religious festivals, Kumbh Mela.

There's barely a mask in sight and authorities are failing to check for negative COVID tests, which were touted as mandatory before entering.

The government continues to remind people about COVID-safe protocols, but the lack of criticism directed towards such reckless behaviour is deafening.

Many healthcare experts did not expect a surge as severe as the one the country is now enduring.

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The virus had already torn through many of the large metropolitan centres last year and there was a hope that future outbreaks would struggle to spread on such an epic scale.

This, of course, was not correct.

The virus has hit record levels in the major cities like Delhi and Mumbai and doctors say the variants are making the situation even more unpredictable.

Nagpur escaped the worst of the pandemic last year, but this year it was the first major city to be overwhelmed.

The scenes playing out there reminded me of what Mumbai endured last year in the weeks after the national lockdown — patients were being forced to share beds in public hospitals and desperate residents took to social media pleading for help to find a hospital with spare capacity.

How to stay safe venturing into a COVID hotspot

Going to a city where one in three tests are coming back positive requires a lot of safety preparation.

I wore a N95 mask and face shield when outdoors.

My producer and I had a third 'dirty' room in the hotel where we would store our gear and previously worn clothes tied up in rubbish bags.

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Alexis Multidisciplinary Hospital ensured the strict safety protocols we needed to enter an ICU, including supplying a nursing supervisor to watch over us as we donned our personal protective equipment, moved around the intensive care ward, and later remove the PPE in a safe way.

Camera gear was kept to an absolute minimum to ensure no unnecessary fiddling.

Everything was sprayed and wiped with 99 per cent alcohol before it was put back in the bags.

Upon my return to Delhi, I would isolate at home for six days, as a precaution, to see if I developed symptoms.

After witnessing such heartbreaking scenes, the urge is to get tested straight away to put your mind at rest.

But it can take longer than five or six days to develop symptoms and that's a good time to get tested.

I knew I had taken all possible precautions.

But I also know the virus has killed people younger than me.

Sitting in isolation waiting for a COVID test is not a nice experience.

Welfare checks were common and I reached out to journalist colleagues to talk through some of the emotions.

I have had two negative tests and will do a third test.

What happens next for India?

I remember the early weeks of the pandemic last year when there was an overwhelming sense that the virus needed to be taken seriously and people were prepared to take necessary, even hastily imposed action.

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Eagerness turned to panic when one of the world's most restrictive lockdowns was implemented with only four hours' notice.

In announcing the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the war against the virus had to be won in 21 days, so it's perhaps understandable why lockdown fatigue set in after six weeks, which ignited the first wave.

I can also understand why people wanted to believe the worst was over after confirmed cases plummeted to a tenth of the country's previous peak.

Health experts were also cautiously optimistic.

But now the virus is spreading at rates never seen before.

The appetite for another aggressive lockdown is low due to the economic damage it inflicted last year, which was particularly disastrous for the country's poor.

But walking around the streets of Nagpur, when one-third of tests were coming back positive, I could not detect the level of concern that this country needs right now.

A lot of masks were being put on only because they noticed I had a camera.

In Delhi, in the weeks before the explosion of cases, I had conversations with three lawyers who had taken off their masks, falsely trying to assure me it wasn't necessary.

This week, half the staff at the Supreme Court had tested positive.

When and how this ends is anybody's guess.

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