Biplab Swain. Photo: Biraj Swain.
- A pandemic death is not an individual family’s failure; it is the failure of the state and society. This is especially true of the delta wave deaths in India.
- Those who fell to the virus left behind not just an empty chair or an inactive number in our phonebooks; the fallen were humans who were at the centres of our universes.
- Here, Biraj Swain remembers her brother Biraj, who fell to the delta variant wave on May 4, 2021, 22 days after his 48th birthday.
According to a study published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, more than 1.9 million children were orphaned (lost their caregivers) from March 2020 to October 2021 in India. One of them is Binayak, our child, who was raised by my brother.
My brother, Biplab Swain, would have turned 49 on April 12 this year. He fell to the delta variant wave on May 4, 2021, 22 days after his 48th birthday. But the Lancet study doesn’t count people like me and my sister-in-law (his wife), who were also orphaned.
He was my only sibling, best friend, parent (both our parents are dead), confidante and pillar of support in a patriarchal world where divorced/single women are ‘lesser’ citizens. He was the centre of our universe and the world is a distinctly lesser place without him.
But why should anyone care about what I have to say about my brother? He was not a celebrity; he didn’t live an extra-ordinary life. Rather, he believed in living an ordinary life well, and that the extraordinary would take care of itself. But people should care because there are too many brothers, sisters, everymen, everywomen, every-humans who fell to the virus.
And a pandemic death is not an individual family’s failure; it is the failure of the state and society. This is especially true of the delta wave deaths in India. Vidya Krishnan, in The Caravan, has done a deep dive into the decisions that led to so many funeral pyres.
Those who fell to the virus left behind not just an empty chair at the dinner table or an inactive number in our phonebooks; the fallen were humans who were at the centres of our universes. A paper in Nature puts the number of such humans at 22 million and The Economist estimates them to number 24.3 million – four times the global official data.
Biplab was an IT systems expert who had worked in Europe and the US but had come back to India, Odisha specifically, to be with his family. He was a family man; a loving son, husband, father, brother, human; an entrepreneur, a farmer, an engineer; an active citizen and a general genius.
His defining characteristic was his kindness. We were born in a trade-unionist household. As Amazon employees’ unionise today and South Asian governments and top industrialists engage in ‘union-busting’, my brother, a software and systems man, had more working-class solidarity in his blood than many professional trade-unionists.
He stood by the Odisha Motion Pictures’ Technicians and Workers’ Association during their wage struggle; he drove to the national highway to hand out food and beverages when millions of migrant workers were forced to walk home after the sudden lockdown announcement in 2020; he charged the phones of thousands strangers for multiple weeks from his solar panels when coastal Odisha went dark in 2019, in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani.
On May 2, 2021, during the peak of the delta wave, he went to a top private hospital with his wife, never to return home; never to continue with his acts of everyday kindness.
His mantra was justice and solidarity and his favourite poem was Pastor Martin Neimoller’s, First They Came… He lived every bit of this poem and it is fitting that we are commemorating his first death anniversary in an inter-faith ceremony.
Biplab would have been an ‘excess death’ too; an uncounted COVID fatality, like the millions who were denied the dignity of even a statistic by the state and its instruments. Despite having an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) COVID-positive report, upon his death, the Cuttack municipality issued a normal death certificate. In November, 2021, only after the Supreme Court’s order on writ petitions 539/2021 and 554/2021, did we get his COVID death certificate; a good six months after his death.
But our battles didn’t end there; rather, they had only just begun. A year after we lit his funeral pyre, standing socially distanced in the crematorium in layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) layers; a year since the country burnt like Dante’s Inferno, our battles are nowhere near an end.
As a female-headed household, consisting of two sister-in-laws and a minor child and without any adult male, we are litigating against our bank for it to recognise one of us as the ‘Karta‘ (manager) of our Hindu-Undivided-Family (HUF) account. This has increased our tax burden exponentially. Professor Faizan Mustafa, in his legal awareness web series, speaks at greater length on the Hindu Succession Act and the sexist bureaucracy.
COVID also exposed the broken state of insurance-financed healthcare in India, standing on a crumbling health infrastructure and lacking adequate human resources. From 2 million missing nurses to 600,000 missing doctors to an unregulated healthcare sector hell-bent on profiteering from the pandemic, we experienced it all.
We had to take our private insurer to an ombudsman to claim our due settlements, only to discover the plethora of pending writ petitions against health insurance companies in the many high courts of the country, registered during the delta wave. Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar did a deep dive into the matter.
Accessing COVID benefits for widows and orphan, too, has been onerous and humiliating in equal measures. Assistance for COVID orphans and widows, – reluctantly announced by the state governments after the Supreme Court’s order – its implementation and delivery deserves more judicial and journalistic scrutiny.
Regular things like the transfer of ownership of vehicles, investments, nominee changes and the like have been akin to walking the Kafkaesque maze. And in the midst of all this, we are litigating against the Cuttack district administration’s incessant attempts to grab our parental land.
Feminist economists and sociologists have been writing reams on the motherhood penalty. I never experienced the actual motherhood penalty because my brother was our mother. With his demise, while motherhood is dawning on me, the penalty is not yet for me to pay, because of my employing organisation, colleagues and many acts of humanity by strangers and random public spirited officials. However, all of this is in spite of the state rather than because of it.
As we soldier on through all these battles and try to deal with survivor’s guilt and grief, and falter in our attempts to heal, I wonder what the mainstream media has been reporting on this past year. These are not just our stories; these are the stories of most survivors. But where is the mainstream reportage on it? Why is the burden to cover these stories on a few independent media platforms? What ever happened to journalism being about ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’?
There’s a Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times‘. We are no fans of interesting times. We want the banal and the ordinary; a world where social protection, science and solidarity rule. And every time we, the strange family of two sister-in-laws and a child, are complemented for being strong and resilient, I want to scream with all my lungs, “Which civilised society demands this level of resilience from victims?”
Biraj Swain works on the intersection of global development and media watch in Asia and East Africa.