Satyender Kumar, 36, and his 70-year-old father, Ramu Krishna, who run a roadside eatery in Jarar a village 70 kilometers to the east of Agra, still recall vividly the dead bodies that were burnt in the farms in early May.
“At least seven bodies were lit up in the sugarcane fields. We had never seen such a sight ever in this village in living memory and that’s something I will never forget,” Ramu Krishna said.
With a population of just over 3,500, the village’s predominantly agricultural community was hit hard by the second wave of COVID.
“Nobody from the administration came to make inquiries or offer help. We did what we could to help the sick but it was no good,” Kavita Kumari, a village council member, told DW.
Public anger at government failure is palpable
In many rural areas in western Uttar Pradesh state, securing medicines itself has been a tough task. Villagers have had to travel long distances before they can get medicines prescribed for them for the treatment of COVID and its related health complications.
At the height of the surge, the entire health infrastructure was overwhelmed and critical medical supplies were in short supply People were dying on their way to health centers, gasping for breath, and families were panicking.
Public anger at the government’s failure to provide support is palpable as they continue to make their way out of the brutal wave of infections, which battered their areas for over a month beginning in mid-April.
“The administration was not there to help. We had to help ourselves. All we could do was watch in horror when our relatives and friends died,” Rafiquddin, a food stall owner in Agra, told DW.
“The politicians were missing in action. Nobody was there on the ground to help when we needed them the most,” he added.
Ignoring warnings from health experts
Many of those who succumbed to the disease were involved in organizing local village council elections in the state in April.
Health experts had warned authorities against holding the polls, given the pandemic situation.
Fearing the virus, many of the hundreds of thousands of government workers ordered to help out had begged not to go. But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh state insisted the vote would go ahead as planned.
For four days, more than 1.3 million candidates fought for nearly 800,000 seats. Tens of millions voted as the virus spread unchecked.
In the days that followed, scores of government employees who worked the polls would die. One teachers’ union said 1,600 educators alone were killed, many of them complaining of fever and breathlessness.
A state government suggestion it might provide compensation for teachers who died after contracting COVID while on polling duty has done little to ease the anger over its refusal to postpone the vote.
‘Complete abdication of responsibility’
Sprawling across northern India and home to more than 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is more populous than Brazil.
Cutting across class, caste and religious divisions, everyone was affected by the calamitous impact of the health emergency.
“Given the scale of the tragedy and complete abdication of responsibility in Uttar Pradesh, I can well understand the anger among people. The big question is how this anger will translate politically in the state elections next year,” political analyst Zoya Hasan told DW.
The anger among the BJP’s traditional support base of upper-caste Hindus is conspicuous. Even family members of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party’s ideological mentor, succumbed to the virus as they could not avail of timely medical help.
It is still difficult to gauge the true scale and spread of the virus in the country’s most populous state.
“Unless you visit each and every village, one will never get to know the real toll. This is because there are so many cases of people dying of fever and breathlessness and that happened without testing and outside hospitals. These deaths are not recorded at all,” a senior official, who asked not to be named, told DW.
‘Orphaned by the state’
Officially, Uttar Pradesh has reported about 1.69 million infections and over 21,000 related deaths. But experts believe that’s a gross underestimate of the total number of cases.
Many people complain that in their true hour of need, the administration only offered paltry assurances and moral advisories to the sick and vulnerable, while trying to cover up the full impact of the pandemic.
“We have been orphaned by the state. There is no government. No one is accountable, and people in villages did not even know who to ask for help,” said Rasheeda Begum, a homemaker in Hathras.