Volunteers set up virtual memorial for those killed by Covid-19 in India

KOLKATA – The last time Mr Prasun Ghatak saw his wife alive was when she bid him farewell on June 18 last year, four days after their wedding. Mr Ghatak, an employee with a major construction firm, was leaving for the airport in Kolkata, on his way to rejoin work in Hyderabad.

The next time he saw her, around a month later, his wife Soumi Saha, 35, was in a body bag at a morgue in a Kolkata suburb and he in a protective suit to shield him from the virus that had snatched her away.

“Her face was really fresh, just the way I had seen it last while getting into the cab,” Mr Ghatak recalled during a recent phone interview with The Straits Times.

He was not allowed to see his wife when she was in the intensive care unit battling Covid-19. Her body, which was not even returned to him, was cremated by the authorities – a practice that began in the early months of the pandemic to avoid further spread of the infection. All he got was a “cremation certificate” for Ms Saha that the local police dropped at his residence.

Pained at not being able to mourn her death properly, Mr Ghatak, also 35, chose to commemorate his wife online when an opportunity came along, through the National Covid Memorial (NCM).

“She will not return but at least this way her memories will remain alive, even if digitally,” added Mr Ghatak, who described his wife as “someone so true and beautiful, someone so loving, someone so appealing, someone so amazing” in his online tribute.

Unveiled on Jan 30, the first anniversary of the day when India registered its first Covid-19 case, the virtual memorial seeks to commemorate those India has lost to the disease and, over time, create an online archive where people can learn more about the pandemic’s impact.

As at Sunday (Feb 7), the country had recorded 154,996 deaths, the world’s fourth-highest tally.

The portal brings to life stories of loss and suffering behind these deaths, beyond the statistics. It was developed by the Covid Care Network (CCN), a Kolkata-based volunteer group that was set up in June to support patients and their families affected by Covid-19.

Dr Abhijit Chowdhury, the CCN’s mentor and a professor of hepatology at the Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research in the city, said the idea for the memorial was spurred by the “tremendously agonising” experience the network’s volunteers had while helping out.

“People were frightened, their helplessness evident at every stage,” he told ST, recalling scenes of people waving to their loved ones being wheeled into ambulances, unsure if they would ever see them again.

People would then call the CCN’s helpline to request information about their family members and, at times, were told they had died. Many, like Mr Ghatak, did not even have the chance to cremate or bury those dead, as bodies “were disposed of in the most unceremonious and unsung way”.

Dr Chowdhury likened the pandemic to an “undeclared third world war” and the NCM to a war memorial that seeks to “restore social dignity” to the dead. “So, there is a sense of paying homage to those who did not get the respect that was due as well as documenting history of the pandemic’s dark days,” he added.

The memorial has been receiving around 10 tributes daily and those sending in an entry need to include a death certificate that mentions Covid-19 as the cause for death. It has close to 100 entries so far.

One of them is from Mr Dipankar Hazra, who mourns the death of his relative Bishwanath Majhi, a homeopathic practitioner, on Sept 16. Mr Hazra wrote that at a time when many doctors stopped seeing patients, “leaving them in distress and helpless, Dr Majhi showed the light to many”.

“He went around helping people and treating them,” Mr Hazra wrote.

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