Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back review: A million acts of compassion amid pain and despair

Barkha Dutt’s book,  Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back, is about the people she met on the road over two years of covering the pandemic for her digital media platform, Mojo Story. It is a poignant narration of the struggles of COVID-19’s victims and survivors, the challenges faced by first responders and bereaved families, and the unexpected gestures of goodwill that came from strangers.

How Indians fought the scourge of coronavirus, personal grief and financial hardship at a time when India failed to save the living and refused to count the dead, is overwhelming to read. The book was not a planned one but Barkha was quick to realise that the real story of COVID could neither be told sitting in the studio nor just depend on the government’s statistics, policies and announcements.

Traumatic days

The humanitarian crisis among the most-marginalised sections overshadowed the medical emergency when she met Mukesh Mandal’s family living cheek-by-jowl at a migrant workers’ colony on the outskirts of Delhi.

In April 2020, the 30-year-old painter used his wife’s dupatta to take his life. The previous day he had pawned his mobile phone and given his wife ₹2,000 to buy and stock food and grocery for their four children. That was a sign of the spectre of starvation but the official closure report said his suicide was triggered by mental health problems.

Mandal’s was one of the many lockdown deaths that made the ensuing days traumatic.

Fearing that hunger would kill him before the virus did, Ranveer, a food delivery agent in Delhi, started walking home 310 km away in Morena district, Madhya Pradesh, on March 27, 2020. When he was 80 km short of reaching home, he called his sister complaining about uneasiness. “Come and get me, if you can” — his last words haunt her because by the time the family could get permission to travel during curfew, he had given up on life. The police said he had had a heart attack.

The virus was playing out on people’s fragility. The widespread despondency and anger took Barkha on a journey of 30,000 km across 14 States to connect with ordinary citizens touched by COVID and also record the acts of compassion when there was paranoia all around.

Stark and lucid in her writing, Barkha tells us about the Hindu gravedigger at a Muslim burial ground; a Muslim volunteer performing the last rites for Hindus; women in a housing society in Surat who cooked extra meals to feed migrant workers; a Mumbai nurse who found it easier to battle terrorists than COVID; children who watched their mother die on the cold floor of a hospital when they were unable to get a bed for her; young resident doctors on long shifts and their mental meltdown; about gurdwaras that ran oxygen langars when hospitals closed their doors.

Countless stories

She writes about her meetings with the pregnant Mann Kumari who walked 150 km from Haryana to Madhya Pradesh with her children and husband and gave birth to her baby by the side of a tarred road with the help of other women when no hospital, doctor or shelter was in sight on the highway; the 70-year-old Leelawati who was forced to beg at Bandra station because she was thrown out by her son whom she had nursed back to health in Mumbai; Jyoti, only 15 years old, who cycled her father 1,200 km from Delhi to Darbhanga.

In April, 2021, Barkha received a phone call she always dreaded — her father, S.P. Dutt, had tested positive for COVID. Her helplessness in not being able to save her father made her the story she had been reporting. Countless others were suffering like her. Everybody’s grief is personal but the nation was going through a collective trauma. “The pandemic made memory a beast,” writes Barkha. Through the stories she narrates, she makes it clear what went wrong and who are to blame.

Humans of COVID: To Hell and Back; Barkha Dutt, Juggernaut, ₹699.

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Printable version | May 13, 2022 2:58:25 pm |