New life in the middle of the pandemic

Amid nationwide lockdown, Delhi’s expectant parents struggle to reach hospitals for delivery. Where there is a will, there is a way

The pandemic has not locked down babies in their mother’s wombs, they are making their way out into a world of uncertainty. With the country under strict restrictions of movement and no public transport, those expectant parents who don’t have their own vehicles have only two places to look to – the ambulance and the police. 

While the ambulance should be the undoubted choice, we know how the capital city is deficit in this. A report by The Hindu from late March had quoted CATS ambulance staff union president Narender Lakra as saying that only 100 ambulances were operational and running on the road.

In a city like Delhi with about 1.9 crore people, this is obviously insufficient. Till 15 April, Delhi Police’s control room received and attended to 447 cases of labour pain. The majority of those cases, 101, were shifted to Safdarjung Hospital which is one of the hospitals designated to take care of Covid-19 positive and suspected cases. 

One of those in labour, taken to Safdarjung was Shabnam, a resident of Lal Kuan, pregnant with her second child. Her husband Shagir made the call to the PCR around 8 in the morning of 15 April. “Everyone is scared of this Coronavirus but we had no choice but to venture out and go to the hospital”, Shagir tells us over the phone. “Our son was born at 9:10 am and we were discharged 24 hours later.”

Shabnam and Shagir with their two children

Shabnam has been asked to not meet anyone, not to shake anyone’s hands, and keep  washing her own. But catching the virus is a secondary worry for the young family. Shagir, who before the lockdown – which began on March 25 – was a daily wager, working as a tailor in Okhla, has since then not earned a penny. The day we spoke to him, 20 April, he was to start a new job as a night guard, working a 12-hour shift (8 pm to 8 am).

For the past two weeks, Shagir says, they have depended on Delhi government’s free meals. Every morning and evening, he goes out around 11 am to eat some lunch and bring home whatever he can for his wife and two-year-old daughter Tabassum. 

At food distribution centres, he says, he has been told off a few times for taking food home. “I said my wife’s health is not good and she can’t come but they scolded me, removing me from the line. She used to go there before the delivery; they knew she was pregnant but still they scolded me.” Now he hopes the new job will pay enough to keep him away from the queue for free food.  

The pandemic has left many like him jobless, cashless. A lucky few are still being paid but there are unexpected expenses during a medical crisis. Uday Pratap Singh, whose wife gave birth to their first child on 15 April, tells us he worries about how to negotiate the followup visit. “While the PCR van dropped us to the Medicare hospital in Okhla for free, they had to pay for an ambulance to return home that same night at 9 pm.”

Uday called the police at 2:30 pm that afternoon and they were taken to the hospital in half an hour, he tells us. The child was born at 4:20pm and they were made to leave the same day as the authorities didn’t think it was safe to stay in a place where there is a steady stream of patients and the threat of the virus high. 

Anu and Uday with their new born child

“The ambulance charged us Rs 1,000 for a distance of about  6 km. The hospital has called us again in another week or 10 days, I don’t know what to do…again we will have to take the ambulance. If there wasn’t a lockdown, we would have many options. Now everything is so difficult and these (ambulance) people charge so much.”

No wonder Kiran, a resident of Bhogal, will be calling the PCR when she goes to hospital for a check-up with her newborn son. She was scheduled to deliver her third child by C-section on the 15th. “With roads cordoned off, the ambulance services I called all said they could not come”. 

Hoping she would find a way to the hospital, she walked to Mathura Road. “It was around 8:30 in the morning. I finally called the police, who said I would have to wait for 10 minutes. They arrived and took me to Bansal Hospital, where my surgery was scheduled.”

While Uday and Anu worry about the expenses of the followup, Kiran knows she will bank on the police in the future. “The police have been very helpful. Even on the evening after my delivery they called and asked if I needed anything,” she says.

Caught in their own circumstances, most of the people interviewed did not express fears about contracting the virus on their trips to hospital, though Kiran was told specifically that she was being discharged early because of the danger that a hospital holds as a breeding ground for viruses. She is worried not just about herself and her two daughters but also her neighbours. “If I get the virus, my chances of spreading it to others is high. I was told to not give the baby to anyone to hold.” 

Her husband was rendered jobless after a death in the family in December of last year. “Every place he goes to he gets an offer of Rs 5,000 till a maximum of Rs 9,000, nothing more than that. Thankfully we own this home and have three rooms so have put one of them on rent.” Not everyone has that backup, and even though they may still be earning money, it won’t be sufficient in the big city. 

Another couple who had their first child during this pandemic are Shobha and Munna Kumar. He had migrated from Bihar 10 years back. When the lockdown was announced, his first instinct was to go back with his wife. “But my madam  was pregnant and I thought if we left, things would be worse,” he says.

Shobha, who stays at home while Munna goes out to buy all the essentials just like the other men we spoke with, says that she isn’t scared of the virus. “I was scared because I was going to give birth”, she says laughing. 

Their son was born on the 16th after the police were called for help and the expectant mother and father were taken to Safdarjung Hospital from their home in Okhla.  Munna says in the waiting room they were made to sit at a one-metre distance. “We take as much care as we can…and at home we continue to wash our hands, and wear masks when we step out.”

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