It was just after midnight on April 28, when Mohammed* got the phone call he was dreading. For the last few days, his entire family was at home in a containment zone in Hyderabad while his mother was at the Gandhi Hospital, where all COVID-19 patients in Telangana undergo treatment.
"Doctors treating my mother told me to keep my phone with me at all times. I could barely sleep and I was constantly staring at my phone, waiting for any update on my mother's health. When they called me and told me she passed away, my heart sank and I became numb for a while," he says.
"I have so much pain that I have to live with, all my life and will take to my grave,” Mohammed says, his voice breaking. “The ache in my heart that I couldn't see my mother's face one last time and that I had to bury her in a hurry… it will remain with me.”
For many like Mohammed, the trauma of losing a family member to COVID-19 – which has claimed 29 lives in Telangana as of May 7 – has been too much to bear.
Mohammed was staying with his 75-year-old mother for the last three years after returning from Dubai as she had several health ailments. His pregnant wife, five-year-old daughter, his sister and her two sons were also living in the same house in Hyderabad's old city.
Mohammed's mother had health issues with her lungs and kidneys, and was undergoing dialysis for around three years.
"On April 14, we had taken her to a private hospital, and removed four litres of water as we were unsure when the next dialysis could happen due to the ongoing lockdown," he narrates.
Since the lockdown began, each visit to the hospital was taken with utmost safety, he says.
"As soon as we used to come back, we used to give her a body bath, take a bath ourselves and wash all our clothes. We didn't take any chances," he adds.
By April 20, Mohammed's mother’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Her hands and feet had swelled up.
"We rushed her to the hospital, but they said that we should take her to the state-run Osmania Hospital. There, they took an X-ray and said that her lungs were infected, but it was unclear whether it was COVID-19 or not. We didn't want to take her to Gandhi Hospital as there was a risk of her getting exposed to the virus there. So, we began calling up private hospitals," he says.
He adds that doctors were refusing to conduct dialysis until she was tested for COVID-19, though her condition was worsening with each passing hour. "The test results could take several hours to return and she needed dialysis immediately," Mohammed says.
His mother was shifted to a private hospital first till 2 am, and at around 11 am on April 21, she was shifted to another hospital which agreed to begin dialysis while waiting for the test result.
"By then, she had to be put on a ventilator. I finished all due procedures and returned home and on April 22, at around 7.30 pm, I got a call saying she tested positive for the coronavirus," Mohammed shares.
Things moved quickly after that. The area around Mohammed’s house became a containment zone, completely restricting movement.
The lane where Mohammed* stays
Mohammed says that from the moment he received the first call, his phone was flooded with calls from the state government.
"The police, the health department, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC); everyone began calling. I panicked. I was certain that there was no chance of infection in my house. We immediately said that we will self-isolate and rushed to the Nizamia Unani Hospital at Charminar.”
Mohammed and his family were tested on April 23 and sent back home as they were asymptomatic. By then, the GHMC had set up a containment zone blocking off access to enter and exit their street without permission from authorities. His entire family later tested negative for COVID-19.
"Meanwhile, I was continuing my attempts to check on my mother. They informed me on April 24 that she had been shifted to Gandhi Hospital and was kept on the ventilator. They also said that she was being given dialysis on alternate days. But besides this, there was nothing I could do but wait for the doctors to call me," he adds.
Mohammed says that it was a harrowing experience. "It's one thing that you can't be with the person who raised you, during her final days, but to be kept in the dark about what was happening with her treatment? It was agony," he says.
After around four days of treatment, Mohammed's mother passed away. He was told to arrange a burial site within the next few hours and call back so that her body could be sent directly to the graveyard.
"I was stuck in a containment zone and didn't know what to do. After speaking to the police, I got permission to visit the graveyard. By 3.30 pm, I made the arrangements and called them. They reached at around 4 pm," he says.
What followed, Mohammed describes as the most disturbing day of his life.
"Though there was see-through plastic near the face, her body was covered completely and I couldn't even see her one last time. I just had to trust that this was my mother's body as I performed my prayers for her and her body was lowered into the grave with ropes," he said.
Mohammed claims that he was not even given a moment to grieve after he covered up the grave with mud.
"By the time we finished, they asked us to leave due to the curfew. We didn't even get time to mourn. For the next four days, I had to make several calls for basic documents. I didn't have anything – from her papers for admission into Gandhi Hospital to her death certificate. It was a lot of hassle," he says.
In his desperate search for closure, Mohammed has been following the government’s health bulletins. However, unlike many other states, Telangana has not been giving details such as age and residence of the persons who have died due to COVID-19. For Mohammed, it feels like his mother has not even been recognised as anything more than a statistic.
Authorities are yet to trace the source of Mohammed’s mother’s infection. "She could not even turn on the bed by herself, forget walking around or going outside,” Mohammed says. Officials presently suspect that she could have contracted the virus during one of her hospital visits.
Meanwhile, police have told Mohammed that all the nursing staff and doctors at the hospitals that they visited had been quarantined and tested negative.
The pain and regret of not seeing his mother in her last moments weighs heavy on Mohammed. Life will never be the same again, he says.