While the pandemic has left collective loss and trauma in its wake, there are some who have found themselves at greater disadvantage than others, such that those who have lost their primary or only earning members to COVID-19.

A woman on a video call with a person wearing a mask Photo by Abir/Picxy
Delve Health Thursday, June 03, 2021 - 14:21

Aakash, a first-year student enrolled in a postgraduate diploma course, tells TNM that he needs to look for work soon. “My dad used to tell me that even if I cannot find work immediately after finishing my education, it’s okay… that I should do what I feel good about,” says Aakash. But his father’s words are now a privilege he can no longer afford. “I am wondering what kind of job I should look for – part-time or full time. It will hamper my studies, but I will have to manage,” he says.

The 26-year-old has had to change his plans because the responsibility of running the household had fallen on him and his elder brother, who is also studying B Tech, after they lost their father to COVID-19 on May 2, 2021. “My brother is the one who received the call with the news. I was in my online class that morning. He’s holding up stronger than our mother and I. He is holding back his tears, telling us that our father is with us. I don’t know how he’s doing it,” Aakash says. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over 3.3 lakh lives in India as of June 3, as per official data, which many believe is quite underreported. While the pandemic has left collective loss and trauma in its wake, there are some like Aakash’s family who have found themselves at a greater disadvantage than others after losing the sole breadwinner. While the quotable saying goes that money doesn’t solve everything, having it certainly makes dealing with losses easier. And so, those who have lost earning members of their families and households have found themselves struggling with more than just the emotional loss of a loved one. 

For now, Aakash’s relatives are helping with day-to-day expenses. However, Aakash and his brother’s education fees had to be paid, for which they had to turn to crowdfunding. “The initial response was good and the first Rs 1 lakh was raised soon. But now, the traction has died down,” he says. “The fund raised from this will cover two years’ fees of my brother and a year’s fees of my course and the reason I thought to start this fundraiser is because I believe that there are good people out there who will surely try to help us in the best possible way,” Aakash wrote in the fundraiser appeal, which can be accessed here.

Aakash and his family miss his father, but a particularly difficult moment was when they started talking to his mother about what happens when colleges reopen and he has to go away. “Talking about this, we really missed him. He would have been there with my mother, at our home,” Aakash says, his voice breaking. 

Pressure to make ends meet 

Many, like Aakash’s elder brother, have had to hold in their emotions and take responsibility sooner than they anticipated. Amit, the son of Dr Siddana, also found himself in a similar situation when his father, who practiced at Gurmatkal in Karnataka, passed away from COVID-19 on July 26, 2020. 

“I haven’t even had a moment to grieve,” Amit tells TNM. With no means to pay the rent and afford their home, Amit and his mother moved to his grandmother’s house at Kambarahalli village in Gulbarga district. The ancestral house was not modernised, and does not have electrification or proper toilets.

“We somehow got our mother’s pension with great difficulty but it is only around Rs 14,000. We have to manage with that now in this small congested place. There are health expenses to take care of - my mother has been sick since 2002, and my father would take care of her at home. Now, because we don’t have money, I travel to the city routinely to buy medicines, stand in long lines and get around 20% off through MedAssist. My medication costs around Rs 4,000 and my mother’s, Rs 5,000-6,000. Some time ago, I fell and injured myself. The first thought I had was to pray that it shouldn’t be anything major. But I have to make at least one doctor visit to get that checked. Now, we only cook and eat, we have money for nothing else,” he says. 

While Amit hopes to start earning as soon as possible, he knows he will have limited opportunities in Gulbarga district. He cannot go to Bengaluru, where he has lived most of his life, because his mother needs care. “I will take whatever comes my way, I don’t really have a choice.”

Amit recounts that in Gurmitkal, there hadn’t been many deaths from COVID-19 so many people, including his family, did not know how serious it was. Besides, his father, who was had diabetes, kept going to work despite advice to the contrary. Even on July 23, three days before Dr Siddanna died, Amit says he was stable. Amit and his mother had tested positive for the coronavirus too by then. But the next day, Dr Siddanna has to be taken to the ICU from the COVID Care Centre, which is for mild and moderate cases of COVID-19. Despite finding a bed in another, better hospital, Dr Siddanna did not make it. “He would fall sick once in many years. I gave him juice before he left home for the COVID Care Centre on July 23. He never came back,” Amit recalls.

Although it has been ten months, Amit says he still hasn’t been able to properly mourn his father’s demise. “My mother keeps scolding me, and no one here respects us after my father passed away. I think it’s because he died of COVID-19. I have been wanting to sit in one corner and just remember my dad. But there is so much to do and so much pressure. I haven’t even been able to tell my relatives that my dad is no more. I fear they will not respect me if I tell them,” he says.

Debts and inadequate relief from govt 

Masuda’s 45-year-old husband, who worked as an auto driver in Bengaluru, succumbed to COVID-19 in the first week of May 2021. Losing the breadwinner of the family meant that there was suddenly no way to pay for the education of their three children, aged 7, 12, and 15. “I took a loan of Rs 80,000 from one and Rs 30,000 from another person. I still don't know how I will start paying these loans back,” Masuda says. 

Masuda’s husband’s death came as a shock to her – she was told by the doctors that her husband would be okay after two-three hours of oxygen support. “They gave him a phone also so he could speak with us. He even told us he was feeling fine, and asked for a change of shirt. But when I came with his shirt the next day, the doctors said he had passed away at night around 1 am. For the next two-three days, the doctors gave us no details on what happened. They said there are too many cases and they do not have time,” Masuda rues. 

After some struggle, she finally got a death certificate. However, she alleges that the hospital is yet to give back a silver chain her husband was wearing when he died. “They gave one chain when I threatened to file a police complaint, but one is still with them,” she adds.   

For persons like Masuda, who have lost their family’s sole breadwinner, there has been no monetary relief or ex-gratia from the state government. However, even in cases where there is some financial relief announced, many allege that they have not gotten any help. For instance, the Union government has approved an insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh for COVID-19 warriors, which would include Amit’s father, Dr Siddana. But the family received no help. 

Dr Srinivas, the former secretary of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) in Karnataka, tells TNM that last year, 60 doctors who were members of the IMA lost their lives to COVID-19. As of the first week of May, he said that more than 10 Karnataka doctors have died in the last two months during the second wave. “While there is a Rs 50 lakh insurance scheme for doctors, they told us that it would only apply for those posted in the COVID-19 wards. But many who died of the disease were in the OPD (out-patient department). I work as a paediatrician and had also got COVID-19 and spent over Rs 1.5 lakh for my treatment. Very few people in Karnataka have benefitted from the insurance scheme,” he says. Incidentally, the Rs 50 insurance cover for COVID-19 warriors ended on March 24, 2021. 

Dr Siddanna’s name was on the IMA Karnataka’s list of COVID-19 warriors who had passed away. This was sent to the Union government in the hope of getting monetary relief for families like Dr Siddanna. However, they did not receive help, Dr Srinivas says.

Dr KG Ramesh, an ENT surgeon whose father Dr Gopal Krishna passed away from COVID-19 on April 8, 2021, remembers being in the ICU while his father was battling for his life. The entire family got COVID-19, including Dr Ramesh. “My father started the first modern medicine clinic in Kollegal in Chamarajanagar district (Karnataka) in the 1960s. We both are the only earning members in the family. While I was in the ICU, I was trying to arrange remdesivir for my father. I spoke to him on video call five minutes before he passed away,” Dr Ramesh tells TNM. 

The family went through financial stress because they could not consistently keep their clinic running due to the pandemic. “It was really scary, because if I also didn’t survive, who would care for the family. I kept thinking this while I was in the ICU,” Dr Ramesh says. “I haven’t tried or gotten any support from the government. I don’t know whether we should expect it as well.”

(With inputs from Pooja Prasanna)