The Possibility of a Third Covid Wave in India is Frightening

Gandewad gathers the ashes at the cremation grounds. Photo: Parth M.N.

Rama Adellu Gandewad feels anxious and disturbed all the time, and he knows why. Even though the dreadful second wave of Covid-19 has receded, he can’t seem to blot out its memories. “The crematorium has not been busy for a while,” he says. “But what if a third wave comes? I can’t think of going through the devastation all over again.”

A cremation worker, 60-year-old Rama is employed at Kapildhar Smashan Bhoomi, in Maharashtra’s Osmanabad city. He lives on the crematorium premises with his family: his 78-year-old mother Adilbai; wife Lakshmi, 40; and their four daughters, Radhika, 18, Manisha, 12, and Satyasheela, 10, and Sarika, 3. Radhika’s 22-year-old husband, Ganesh, lives with them, too.

It is Rama’s job to manage the crematorium. “I set up pyres for dead bodies, clean up the ashes after the body is burnt, and so on.” Ganesh assists him in these tasks. “For this, we get Rs. 5,000 a month from the [Osmanabad] municipal council,” Rama says. The amount, which is payment for the work done by both of them, is the family’s sole income source.

Originally from Nanded – over 200 kilometres from Osmanabad city – Rama and his family moved here about 12 years ago. They belong to the Masanjogi community, categorised as a Nomadic Tribe in Maharashtra. Masanjogis have traditionally been cremation workers and alms-seekers. Like the Gandewads, some families live on cremation grounds and burial sites.

Rama says he has worked in crematoriums “all his life”. But never had he seen so many dead bodies together like after the outbreak of Covid-19. “Especially during the second wave [March-May 2021] ,” he says, “I hadn’t seen anything like it before. The bodies of dead patients kept burning through the day. We inhaled that smoke the whole day. I am surprised none of us died of Covid.”

For days on end, the pandemic left the family gasping for better air. Their tin-shed home, located at the gate of the crematorium, is hardly 100-150 metres away from where pyres burn in the open. A pile of wood is stacked opposite the shed and the pyres are arranged about a dozen steps down the slope from his house. The smoky pungent air of burning bodies rises and floats towards the shed.

When the mortality rate was high due to Covid, the Gandewad home was filled with smoke at all times. Twice a day – in the afternoon and late evening – bodies would be delivered from Osmanabad Civil Hospital for cremation. Rama and Ganesh would arrange the pyres before each set arrived at the crematorium.

“During those months, the crematorium saw 15-20 bodies being burnt every day. One day, we had 29,” says Ganesh. “We received about 5 to 6 bodies per day in the first wave [April to early July 2020], and, at that time, we thought it was a lot. We can’t handle so much again. It is stressful and exhausting,” he adds.

Almost every day, they had woken up to harrowing wails of relatives, and gone to bed with itchy eyes. And though they have been breathing better after the drop in coronavirus infections, Rama still can’t forget the stench that had enveloped their home.

As of October 14, there were nearly 390 active cases of Covid-19 in Osmanabad district. More than 67,000 positive cases and over 2,000 deaths had been reported since March 2020.

The wailing of distraught relatives at the crematorium haunts Rama even now. But, he says, they would often crowd in the cremation site and violate many Covid protocols. “You have to be sensitive while dealing with them,” he adds. “You need to keep them at a safe distance, and get on with your work. Sometimes people understand, sometimes they get violent.”

But it all evidently impacted Rama’s own family – particularly in the second wave. Each time an ambulance drove up the steep, rocky path to the crematorium, three-year-old Sarika would shout “smoke, smoke”. “She would start to rub her eyes even before the bodies were unloaded from the ambulance,” says Ganesh, adding that the smoke gets in even if the doors and windows are kept shut. “We have had a bit of relief after the second wave decreased. So, she doesn’t do that anymore. But growing up like this could affect her in the long term. The possibility of a third wave is frightening.”

Every morning, Rama and his family track the Covid-19 numbers received on their phones by the district administration. “Every day, we wake up, check the numbers, and then breathe a sigh of relief. Lately, it hasn’t been worrying,” says Rama. “But if the third wave comes, or if [Covid] numbers start going up, we would be the first ones to know.”

Although the family survived the pandemic until now, Rama’s mother talks about its lingering effects. “All of us have fallen sick at some point,” says Adilbai. “We are coughing even now, though there are not as many dead bodies. The head feels heavy and it keeps spinning. We feel dizzy all the time. I don’t think we can handle another attack of Covid, and being constantly surrounded by death.”

They have no option but to stay put where they are. “Where will we go?” asks Rama. “We don’t have enough money to rent a house. And I have not done any other job in my life.”

The family cultivates jowar and bajra – just enough for their needs – on half an acre of municipal land next to the crematorium. “Our cash in hand comes from the crematorium work [Rs. 5,000] . We won’t be able to get through without it,” says Adilbai.

The family manages on its own, without any other income or even the basics that are required now. “We don’t have any protective gear. We don’t have sanitisers. We use our bare hands for everything,” says Adilbai. But more than anyone else, she worries about her grandchildren. She says,  “I don’t want them to grow up and work in a crematorium.”

This story is part of a series supported by the Pulitzer Center through an independent journalism grant to the reporter.

This article first appeared on Rural India Online.