The heat was already suffocating when Mohammad Aamir Khan awakened in his tiny, windowless room with only a sheer curtain for a door. He offered a quick prayer to an image hanging above the bed of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, and headed down the narrow stairs.
It was time to ferry the dead.
Before the novel coronavirus brought its pandemic to New Delhi , Aamir was one among tens of thousands of individuals making a living within the New Delhi as a taxi driver.
But that employment dried up during the nearly three-month lockdown to stop the spread of the virus. With cases rising in India even before the govt lifted the lockdown last week, a lover suggested perhaps the sole business now booming within the country – driving a personal ambulance.
Reporting on his first day, the 38-year-old said he had not even realised he would be transporting coronavirus patients until he was handed a group of overalls.
It was shortly before his ambulance became a hearse. Now his days are spent transporting corpses from the hospital to cremation pyres and cemeteries, sometimes stacked on top of every other six at a time, their names written in permanent marker on their burial shrouds.
Fears of catching infection
Sometimes he’s alone in his ambulance and must believe the relatives of the dead to assist him lift the body from the rear of the vehicle. Sometimes he has got to lift them himself.
“It was strange to me, to be carrying a body rather than a patient,” he said of the primary time he did it. “But over time, I got wont to it.”
As the job becomes more familiar, Aamir wrestles with what proportion protective equipment to wear. He could wear a hazmat-like suit, but that’s not very practical in New Delhi’s ferocious heat.
“We will faint in half an hour if we wear the kit and work,” he said. He and his fellow drivers are far more comfortable wearing a skinny hospital gown. But there could be a price for his or her comfort: “We are always worried that we’d catch the infection.”
Government-run ambulances are scarce in India. most of the people resort to calling private ambulances, some little quite converted vans with mobile numbers written on the side, within the hope a passer-by will note it down and call if they fall sick.
Unlike in many other countries badly hit by the virus, ambulance drivers and other vital doctors in India are poorly paid, have minimum training, no insurance and long working hours. “We are alleged to work for 12 hours each day – but 12 hours isn’t 12,” Aamir said. “Earlier, there wont to be one or two bodies. But now the mortuary is full.”
Cases in India are surging, with nearly 323,000 people infected, fourfold that of China’s official infections. the amount of deaths within the country, at 9,500, is thus far limited compared with countries with an identical number of cases
The peak remains weeks, if not months, away, experts say, whilst the govt eased most curbs on movement on June 8.
‘What choice do I have?’
Like his father, Aamir trained as a stonemason, but found it too difficult to earn a living. He later found work as a taxi driver for a string of companies, including Ola and Uber.
Sometimes, he was ready to save the maximum amount as 1,000 Indian rupees (about $13) per day after expenses – enough for him and his wife, Rubi, to enrol their 7-year-old daughter, Hamda, at an area school .
But after the lockdown began, the owner of the taxi he drove said he was not required due to low demand.
Aamir has kept his ambulance work a secret from his neighbours in Mandawali, a low-income colony within the east of the capital that was only recognised by the Delhi government in 2012.
He worries what they’re going to think if they determine . Doctors, nurses and other medical staff treating patients across India say they need been attacked and spat at, with some ostracised by friends and relatives because the virus spread across the country.
“They still think i’m unemployed,” said Aamir, who doesn’t even have the comfort of his wife and child during this point of worldwide troubles. They left to go to the family’s ancestral village days before the lockdown and are unable to return.
Aamir’s pay, 17,000 Indian rupees (about $220) per month, is best than being unemployed, but it doesn’t catch up on the risks, he said.”It’s not enough for the work,” he said. “I’m uninterested . But what other choice do I have?”
Aamir’s days are a circuit of hospital mortuary, cemetery and crematorium. Interspersed are long waits within the heat, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with other drivers and their mortuary assistants.
His first stop is typically Jadeed Qabristan, the most Muslim cemetery for Delhi’s old walled city. He refers to Mohammad Shameem, the top gravedigger there, as “Shameem bhai” or brother.
‘There is not any dignity’
Late one afternoon after returning to the mortuary from Jadeed Qabristan, Aamir was involved his second trip of the day: to Nigambodh Ghat, one among the most cremation grounds for Hindus within the city.
His ambulance is meant to hold a maximum of two bodies, but on today , there have been six. He carried a handwritten list of their names on a scrap of paper.
Half of the electrical ovens were broken, and men in vests heaved firewood up to the open pits where the bodies of coronavirus victims are now cremated.
Most days at Nigambodh, there’s a backlog of ambulances thanks to a scarcity of crematorium staff. As Aamir squatted by a replacement chimney for one among the ovens at some point , an argument broke out between workers and grieving relatives.
The air shimmered with heat from the pyres and therefore the Delhi summer, where temperatures had already reached 47 degrees Celsius (116.6 Fahrenheit).
The smoke began to sting Aamir’s eyes, and he reached for a pair of goggles.
Crematorium workers, one wearing flip-flips, opened the door to the ambulance. one among the lads rifled through the bodies, trying to find names written on the shrouds.
The first was that of Satinder Kumar Singh, a 50-year-old bank employee. He was admitted to hospital on June 9 and died two hours later, said his 16-year-old son, Amrit.
“There is not any dignity. it’s sort of a dustbin,” said Devinder Sharma, a neighbour who had come to assist Singh’s sons.
Sharma gestured to the open doors of the ambulance in disgust. “After seeing this, i do not believe humanity anymore.”
Crematorium workers visited lift the second body, a heavy-set man. He was wedged tight against the others, and because the workers strained under the load , he tumbled to the bottom , ripping the shroud as he fell.
After they placed him onto the pyre, a relative stepped up to undertake to preserve the man’s dignity. The mourner wasn’t wearing any protective equipment and a crematorium employee shouted at him to step back.
Throughout it all, Aamir sat on a close-by bench, staring vacantly into space because the smoke billowed around him.
In a way, it had been an honest day for him: He didn’t need to touch any bodies, his main preoccupation when he starts his shift. And yet his mind kept wondering what Rubi and Hamda would do if something happened to him. Who would lookout of them?
Singh’s relatives blessed his body with sandalwood powder and drawn butter . By the time the flames began to lick at the pyre, Aamir and his ambulance had long left for his or her next funeral.