‘Deaths are real’: in Kashmir, a family of COVID-19 victim warns people

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When Rameez Makhdoomi reads news of recent deaths caused during the second wave of COVID-19, flashbacks come rushing. Last year a video went viral of him and his brothers, wearing protective suits, breaking down outside the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar as they struggled for a stretcher for their dead mother.

Two months after the pandemic broke out in Kashmir, his 63-year-old mother Afroza Makhdoomi, a former principal, fell sick. For three days she had a fever and a mild cough, the two prominent symptoms of COVID-19. She tested positive.

Soon after Afroza tested positive, the Makhdoomi family, residents of Buchpora area of Srinagar, scrambled to procure medication and took turns to care for her at the SKIMS hospital, all dressed in protective equipment. The efforts cost the family more than ₹2,00,000.

It was still a time when doctors were in the dark on treating patients with COVID-19. For days she had kept insisting to be taken home, away from the ward that took a toll on her mental health in her last days. “She was so scared of the ward,” Rameez said as his voice quavered, “as if she knew she wasn’t going to leave alive.”

His mother had followed prevention protocols religiously, even ensured that everyone in her family did too but momentarily lowered her guard and visited a relative in early July.

Rameez said that the messaging from the administration and healthcare institutions had created “confusions” that “maybe the situation was not as bad”. “We suddenly got relaxed about COVID-19 for a few days because everyone was confused,” said Rameez. “But I still believe that she took 80 percent precautions even then.” 

On the seventh day of her admission and diagnosis of pneumonia, she fell unconscious. “Rather than taking a call, doctors kept asking us what to do,” Rameez recalled. “How could we tell them that?”

Afroza spent nine days in the hospital, succumbing to the disease on 15 July 2020. Rameez still remembers the time on the tip of his tongue: 4:35 pm. “In those few minutes I used to see my mother fighting for her life and struggling to breathe,” said Rameez. 

Afroza is among the 1,883 residents of Jammu and Kashmir who lost their lives to COVID-19 in the last year. By April end this year, the death toll across the region has risen to 2,300 with more than half in the Kashmir Valley.

To the grave

For Rameez, being in the ward, where three patients died as his mother battled for her life, was traumatic from the outset. Everyone present in the ward, the doctors included, he said felt clueless about the situation.

“In the last three days, it felt like she was dead already. We were still hoping for her recovery but even her determination to survive could not help her at all,” said Rameez. “And she died.”

After her death, the Makhdoomi family was told that the hospital was running out of coffins and that they had to wait. When the hospital did give them a stretcher after causing an ordeal, “it had feces over it,” said Rameez. “That infuriated us.”

“This was their behaviour with an educated family,” Rameez said of the hospital’s attitude towards patients. “I don’t know how they would have been treating the destitute and uneducated families from far-off places.”

A handful of members of the Makhdoomi family and their close friends buried Afroza in their graveyard. All wore protective suits and stood far apart. Back home, the family locked their gates to forcibly prevent any condolence meeting.

“We didn’t want to become a source of spreading the virus,” said Rameez.

Trauma for life

For the people around the Makhdoomi family, it was strange to accept that Afroza had died due to COVID-19, said Rameez, adding that people would “almost socially boycott families with COVID-19 cases or deaths as if these families had committed a sin.”

The Makhdoomi family didn’t just have to deal with the grief of losing a loved one but also the stigmatisation by society and demeaning of the value of her life by cold hospital employees, otherwise valorised as frontline workers. 

The family never took their belongings from the ward as they could not “come to terms with her death”.

Witnessing his mother losing the fight to COVID-19 has pushed Rameez into depression. “I am trying to come out of it but it is a lifelong pain,” he said, adding that Afroza’s death has left a void that can’t be filled. “If you look at us today, we are going on with our lives but her place remains empty.”

It was after Afroza’s death that the family, which had initially gotten “relaxed” about the pandemic, had learnt that COVID-19 is a “really serious disease”. Rameez added: “My mother did not have any comorbidities and she was really energetic and disciplined about life, still the virus took away her life.”

“If a person dies of cancer or some other disease, the family at least gets to look after the patient for some time, but in COVID-19, there is no time,” Rameez said of the uncertainty that the disease brings. “It is just like how a person is killed in militancy or firing episode.”

Rameez believes that his family became more aware of the virus during the short span of his mother’s illness as the virus was still new. “If we had enough knowledge about the most basic things including oximeters, she might have even survived,” he said. 

Ten days after Afroza’s death, her husband, 68-year-old Mohammad Syed Makhdoomi, and her sister-in-law also tested positive. “Later we got to know through the antibodies testing that my brother and I had been positive too,” said Rameez. “We did not make the same mistakes again.”

After losing a member to the COVID-19 virus, the Makhdoomi family believes that people need to stop thinking of the virus as a conspiracy theory – the “struggle and deaths are real”. “Now we are much aware about COVID-19. So we try to offer awareness to the people as well,” he said. “We don’t want anyone else to lose a family member due to the deadly virus.”

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