IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In India's Covid crisis, the world's worst, a family's traumatic quest for help

More than 187,000 people have died from the virus that is ravaging India, according to official figures, as the country grapples with the deluge of deaths and a collapsing health care system.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

Ujwala Dupare gripped her younger brother’s hand as he struggled to catch his breath in the back of the car.

"Don't be scared, I’m right here," she recalls telling Praveen Durge, 40, as the family frantically searched for an empty hospital bed in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. "I’m right next to you."

"He began to get scared, and softly told us that he thought he was going to die," Dupare told NBC News in a telephone interview. "I kept reassuring him, holding his hand."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

As they approached the last hospital on their list, Durge’s wife, Khushbu, saw that his eyes had closed. She screamed and called his name. "Wake up, please, get up," she cried, according to Dupare.

The married father of one died in the back seat of the car from complications related to Covid-19.

Image: Praveen Dupare with his five-year-old son and wife, Khushbu.
Praveen Dupare with his five-year-old son and wife, Khushbu.Courtesy Dupare family

Durge is one of more than 187,000 people, according to official figures, to have died from the virus that is ravaging India.

The country on Friday reported more than 332,000 new infections, a world record for the second straight day that raised the total number of cases past 16 million since the pandemic began.

With more than 4 million cases recorded, Maharashtra is the worst affected state in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

Images of mass cremations are circulating online, as India grapples with the deluge of deaths and a collapsing health care system.

The surge has brought pain, fear and anxiety to millions of families across the country. As they desperately try to navigate the crisis, thousands of Indians are turning to social media for help.

Messages from people trying to find a vacant bed, scarce supply of oxygen or the antiviral medication remdesivir are flooding Twitter and Facebook.

They have even been joined by hospitals themselves, with a major chain in the capital New Delhi on Friday begging for more supplies on Twitter to save growing crowds of patients who are struggling to breathe.

Image: Health workers wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear stand around a patient waiting to get transferred to an intensive care unit (ICU), at a recovery centre to treat Covid-19 coronavirus patients, in Mumbai
India's government has started running Oxygen Express trains with tankers to meet the scramble at hospitals, Railroad Minister Piyush Goyal said on Friday.Punit Paranjpe / AFP - Getty Images

A fire at a hospital in a suburb of Mumbai also killed 13 people Friday, the latest accident to hit a facility crowded with virus sufferers. On Wednesday, 22 patients died at a public hospital in Maharashtra when their oxygen supply ran out due to a leaking tank.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces rising public anger over his handling the crisis, has remained largely silent while allowing religious festivals and election rallies attended by thousands to continue.

'Too traumatic'

Durge, a school teacher, first developed a fever and a cough last week.

Suspecting he might have caught Covid-19, he went to a private hospital Saturday, hoping to be admitted and receive treatment. But the hospital had no space or Covid-19 testing kits and sent him home with only medication to soothe his sore throat.

The next day, his health deteriorated rapidly, his sister said. At 2 a.m. Sunday, he woke up unable to breathe properly.

"My husband, his wife, and I immediately put him in the car and we drove from hospital to hospital in search of a vacant hospital bed," she said.

For more than three hours, in the early hours of Sunday, they went to about 12 hospitals across the city of Chandrapur, she said.

"All of them turned us away," Dupare said.

"Not one single doctor even came out to take a look at my brother, even as we begged them to. We were so distressed, we even begged the doctor to let him sleep on the hospital floor. Everyone said no."

A postmortem confirmed that Durge was Covid-19 positive.

His family, unable to perform the traditional Hindu funeral rites due to his status as a Covid-19 patient, were made to conduct the funeral at a hospital-run crematorium.

Durge leaves behind his wife and a five-year-old son.

"His son keeps asking, 'Where is daddy?'" Dupare said. "What can we tell him? He’s a small child and doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s too traumatic."

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Durge's wife, Khushbu, meanwhile, has also tested positive and is currently in a government quarantine facility alone.

For Dupare, however, this is about more than a single family’s tragedy.

"Forty eight people died from Covid-19 at one of the hospitals we visited that night," she said.

"I want people to know what is happening in India. This is real."