A number of artists, writers, and activists initiated a campaign to ‘Count Every Death’, commemorate Covid victims and amplify the voices of family members who lost loved ones.
Among the hundreds who have endorsed this call include a cross section of activists, artists, retired government officials, actors, media representatives, academics and organisations from across the country and state. They include former IAS officer Sashikanth Senthil, actors Parambrata Chatterjee, Chethan “Ahimsa” Kumar, Prakash Raj and Richa Chadha, badminton player Jwala Gutta, singers T.M. Krishna, Moushumi Bhowmik and Rupam Islam, artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Assam MP Ajit Bhuyan, Gujarat MLAs Chhotubhai Vasava and Jignesh Mevani, Bihar MLAs Manoj Manzil and Mahboob Alam, Jharkhand MLA Vinod Singh, former navy chief Admiral Ramdas, writers and academics Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, Shiv Vishwanathan, V. Geetha, S.V. Rajadurai, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Samim Ahmed, Du Saraswati, Rajendra Chenni and Rahamath Tarikere, senior advocate Indira Jaising, Kannada filmmakers Giriraj and B. Suresh, activists Kavita Krishnan, Annie Raja, Bela Bhatia, Medha Patkar, Shabnam Hashmi, Clifton D’ Rozario, Yogendra Yadav, Agriculture Economist Dr. T. N. Prakash Kammardi, Shilpaa Anand, faculty member at BITS-Pilani; and organisations like All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU); Stree Jagruti, Grameena Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane; Gamana Mahila Samuha; Karnataka Mahila Dourjanya Virodhi Vedika; Environment Support Group; and Slum Janandolana.
The appeal says: “Governments do not want to count the dead or even admit they have died. They are even removing the shrouds from the riverside graves so that the world may not be able to count our dead. By refusing to count them, they are seeking to forget our precious loved ones. But we cannot let our loved ones be forgotten: each has a name, each must be remembered, each must continue to be loved.”
Richa Chadda said to a newspaper, “A lot of people are numb or gutted right now. It will take a long time to heal. People aren’t just statistics: they are colleagues, papas, betis (daughters), dadis (grandmas), classmates and wives.” Jwala Gutta added, “We cannot exist as a society without (remembering) those who lost their lives, like the workers who died on the roads. I shall be surprised if no human feels for these people.”
TM Krishna told the paper, “Are these Covid deaths? These are deaths caused by an uncaring government. The migrant workers dying is a classic example, and people dying for lack of oxygen.”
NFIW leader Annie Raja said that women from many states had joined the campaign and collectively mourned the Covid and lockdown victims, and demanded accountability from the government, to ensure that such killings are not repeated.
'Mahasweta Samajdar, Editor 'Bhraman' magazine, read a Bengali poem by Birendra Chattopadhyay. Kavita Krishnan read a poem by Diksha Bijlani, in the original English, and also translated by her into Hindi, titled “When living is political, can death be apolitical?’
In Karnataka, many workers and activists joined the campaign and spoke on a Zoom call about their experiences of loss. Activist and artiste D Saraswati said they would document all the people who died due to lack of oxygen, hospital admission, medicine or food. “We are here to establish our bonds by remembering all those as ours. We will gather every Sunday and try to ensure these are not just numbers but living and breathing people.”
Narayanamma, a pourakarmika (municipality sanitation worker), inaugurated the event by lighting a candle. She said her friend and colleague Susheelamma died in hospital after developing breathing problems: “We don’t know whether she got oxygen. Maybe she would have lived had she got oxygen. We want a Rs 30 lakh compensation for her family. We demand that a member of her family be given a job by the government.”
Shouri Raj, who heads an association of crematorium workers in the city, said they had been working from 6 am to nightfall every day and would continue to do so. “I have seen so much pain that it made me cry. The words of people who bring the bodies still weighs on my mind.”
Poet Sharifa K read out a poem that questioned the need for constructing the Central Vista at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore when people are not able to pay for beds and oxygen.
Shivalinge Gowda, an activist from Chamarajanagar, blamed the bureaucracy for the death of 36 people there due to lack of oxygen in the Chamarajanagar hospital. He said the government acknowledged only 24 of these deaths.
Many Indians living in other countries (Singapore, Australia, UK, USA) also joined the campaign.
The All India ASHA Workers Coordination Committee joined the 'Remember loved ones, Count every death, Share every sorrow' campaign, saying that a large number of ASHA workers heroically battling Corona on the frontlines died but governments are shirking their responsibility of giving them dignity and respect and providing social security to their bereft families. The governments do not even have statistics related to ASHA deaths, and is hiding whatever figures they do have. The ASHA workers, paying tribute to their sisters who died, demanded Rs 10,000 monthly Corona allowance and health insurance of Rs 10 lakhs for all ASHA workers.
In response to the call given by the All India ASHA Coordination Committee, the Bihar State ASHA Workers Sangh organized memorial meetings at PHCs and Sadar Hospitals on 15 June to honour the memory of ASHA workers who died during the Covid pandemic period. Despite pouring rain, hundreds of memorial meetings were organized across the State. Large numbers of people remembered their loved ones by offering floral tribute at the portraits of deceased ASHA workers.
AICCTU-affiliated Uttarakhand ASHA Health Workers Union activists organized a memorial meetings and paid tribute to all the deceased ASHA workers by lighting candles, holding posters and placards, and observing a minute's silence.
ASHA Health Workers Union State General Secretary Dr Kailash Pandey said that the government says ASHAs are Corona Warriors, but gives them no facilities. They had to bear their own medical costs and were not paid the Rs 50 lakhs compensation announced by the government. Their Corona period honorarium is also not being paid timely.
Delhi Asha Kamgar Union and AICCTU activists visited the home of an Asha worker in Mustafabad, Norrma, who died after being infected with Covid on duty. Her husband is a factory worker. He said his wife died due to oxygen shortage. "ASHA workers go house to house on behalf of the government to care for everyone's health, for public health. But when they themselves fall ill, the government does nothing to help them." Noorma's daughter, a Class IX student, and her two younger brothers speaking about how they miss their mother who used to help them study, used to cook meals for them. "I don't know how to cook, how will we manage", she said.
The CPIML is conducting a painstaking door-to-door survey of deaths that took place in villages between 1 April-May 31. This survey is being accompanied by village-level memorial meetings for the Covid victims. These meeting are helping to break the stigma surrounding Covid deaths. The survey is still ongoing but here are some initial takeaways.
In 14 panchayats of Tarari block, rural Bihar:
- 367 people died between.
- Only 20 of these had been tested for Covid, though the majority of them had "cold-cough-fever-breathlessness" symptoms.
- Most could not go to hospitals: the reasons included fear, stigma, distance and expense of travel to a hospital
- it is only on being approached by AISA, RYA, AIPWA comrades that they are speaking of the deaths, and agreeing to seek compensation.
In Danwar Bihta village (Karakat block, Rohtas) alone, 31 people died between 1 April and 31 May, all with symptoms of cold-cough-fever-breathlessness.
This survey will continue and be accompanied by a “Healthy Bihar” campaign in the first two weeks of July. Liberation will carry a detailed report of the survey.