In his opinion column dated April 29, 2021 for the Financial Times, Dr Zarir Udwadia, a renowned physician consultant in Mumbai, compared the graphic images of the sufferings in the COVID-19 wards in India with Dante’s ‘Inferno’. He found the sufferings in Dante’s Inferno, an epic poem depicting Dante’s travel through hell on his way to heaven, to be an apt metaphor for the COVID-19 sufferings in India. His column meticulously analysed the failures of the Narendra Modi government, but did not explain why Dante’s Inferno is an apt metaphor for the present crisis. He left it to our imagination.
Dante and his imaginary guide Virgil were travelling through nine circles of hell on their way to heaven. Hell was used as a metaphor for human suffering for sins committed on earth. Although the punishment was severe, Dante’s poem portrayed them as fair and proportionate to the sins committed. The sufferings in India are not imaginary, but real, taking place while people are still alive, and most importantly, whatever their sins are, the fairness and proportionately of the punishments are definitely questionable. Yet the reference is fair and this column is designed to explain why.
India is now in the proverbial “Ante-Inferno” with a clear inscription written all over her, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”. India is now the case study of “what not to do” in a pandemic, thanks to the conceit, egotism, and self-approbation of the Modi government.
Despite warnings of the second wave by eminent epidemiologists, Modi’s hubris encouraged him to continue with regional elections where millions assembled (without masks and without any semblance of social distancing) to cheer the “dear leader”, and to ensure uninterrupted Hindu celebration of the Kumbh Mela, which by all indication was expected to be a super-spreader. His callous indifference to the potential loss of human lives, their sufferings and the indignities in death is what this hell is all about. This hell also has nine circles, where sufferings in each of those circles are differentiated, yet real.
Nine circles of hell
The first circle of hell starts with loss of taste and smell. You suspect you are COVID-19 positive, but you cannot confirm it. There are no tests available. Even with a year to prepare for the inevitable second wave, COVID-19 tests kits are non-existent in India. You have to wait till you cannot wait anymore. That is when you have entered the second circle of hell.
You are frantically searching the internet to find a doctor to consult, but you cannot find one. Even if you can find one, either the waiting is too long to render it useless, or the price tag is too steep. A country of 1.4 billion literally has no credible public health. Health care is not a fundamental right in India. Far from it. With precious few resources available for healthcare, only a minuscule of the population has access to quality healthcare. The rest can only wait for a miracle cure. Seeking a miracle cure for this yet undiagnosed ailment (which millions in India are now doing) signifies the loss of control over your own life. Soon you cannot breathe. You are now really sick.
You have now entered the third circle of hell. You gasp for air, but too little is available. You need oxygen–but before that, you need a hospital bed. “No vacancy” board greets in every hospital you try. Your family gives up. They cannot carry you anymore. The chances are high that they themselves are also infected. They set you up in the side walk. You are now literally lying on the street gasping for air, while your family is trying desperately to buy an oxygen cylinder for you at ten times the market price. You have now entered the fourth circle of hell.
To your surprise, you find that you are not alone there. Many of your neighbours are there too, lying on the street with you. Their family is similarly searching for oxygen cylinders to comfort their patients. No one however is coming back with a cylinder. You cannot breathe anymore. You give up. Your journey in life is over, cruelly cut short by the virus. However, in this hell, sufferings do not end with death. It just begins for your family. They are now in the fifth circle of hell.
Since there was no doctor who treated you and no hospital that admitted you, your family cannot procure a death certificate. Proving that you died, and that too of Coronavirus, is extremely hard. In the month of May in India, the temperature is high and the humidity is unbearable. While the search for a death certificate is on, your body starts decaying in this intense heat. The city simply smells death with so many dying in the streets. Your family enters the sixth circle of hell.
Your family pays a bribe, a high premium to get the death certificate that declared you dead, but not of COVID-19. You are officially not a COVID-19 victim. Your family now has to deal with your body. The government is happy. One less body to deal with, one less embarrassing statistic.
Your body needs to reach the crematorium. But there are no helpers. No family members, no neighbours, and no friends turn up to help. The family has no choice but to look for a hearse. Your family enters the seventh circle of hell. But hearse can only come at a high price tag. The increased demand for hearse has increased the price of its services. Also, waiting is long, and your body is fast disintegrating. Your family again pays a premium for the service, and your body finally reaches the crematorium.
Your body is number 50 in line to be cremated. That is a wait for about 10 hours. Your body cannot wait that long. Neither can the other bodies. That is when your contacts come in handy. Your family calls every contact they have, local, regional, national political leaders, policemen, government officials, any one they know who can pull some strings and help your body skip the wait. However, no one picks up the phone. The family enters the eighth circle of hell.
Anxiety finally gives into violence. Fight breaks out in an attempt to cremate you first. No reflections on your life. No final dignified goodbyes. You will hit the pyres only if your family prevails over others. Eventually, your turn comes and your almost decapitated body is now ready to be cremated. Your family enters the ninth circle of hell.
That is when your family realises that there are no priests to say the final rights, and no wood to incinerate your body. Everything is available but at a high black-market price. Your family is tired by now and not sure even if they care anymore. They pay a premium price for wood and someone lit the pyre for the final send-off. As your body is consumed by the fire, your family finally has some time to reflect, and it is then that they realise, that very soon, you will reach Dante’s Purgatory and you are on your way to Paradiso.
Your sin, in fact, the collective sin of the country–choosing a government that substituted bigotry for inclusiveness, incompetence for efficiency, and smugness for governance–has partially been accounted for. You personally paid with your life. You ended up being George Floyd, unable to breathe because the knee of incompetence, indifference, and braggadocio sucked the air out of you.
Many more will follow your traumatising journey, and by the time it ends, hopefully, Indians will realise that Dante’s hell is real, manifested in our sufferings from choosing a con man, who lies about his chest size, his marriage, his academic achievements, his childhood experience, and his professional successes, yet promises to do wonders for the country.
COVID-19 should teach us that there is no shortcut to greatness. The path to Paradise is built on a commitment to truth, social justice, and inclusiveness, but not lies and false promises. It is only through that collective realisation will we start the journey to paradise, not through sufferings for perceived sins committed, but through the redemption of controlling our destiny–one life at a time. Only then would COVID-19 have at least one redemptive purpose.
Debasish Chakraborty is the Dean of School of Business at Seton Hill University in the United States.