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'Everything Happened So Quick': Couple In India Both Lose Fathers To COVID-19

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to India and the story of one couple there. They had returned home from abroad a few months ago to be closer to their retired parents, but then COVID-19 exploded across the country. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on one family's fight to save their loved ones as India's health system collapsed.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Shalabh Pradhan (ph) has worked all over the world - Kansas, Minnesota and most recently, Kuwait. This winter, he moved his family back to his hometown in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. He'd lost his mother 12 years ago, and he wanted to spend more time with his dad.

SHALABH PRADHAN: I was in U.S. almost seven years. We came back, me and my wife, because my dad and her dad. So we thought we will go back to India, and we will take care of them.

FRAYER: He and his wife could work from home, and his wife's parents were nearby, too. Their kids were thrilled to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of colors, with their grandparents this year. This is exactly why we moved back to India, Shalabh thought - special time with his dad.

PRADHAN: Yes, yes. I can send you a few pics. He was a healthy - his willpower was very strong.

FRAYER: But about two weeks after Holi, Shalabh's father developed a dry cough. It was mid-April. COVID cases were rising in India, but the TV news was mostly about state elections, Shalabh recalls.

PRADHAN: They were not talking about this COVID second wave, it's coming. And they were not talking all the precautions. They were not talking about the symptoms. Nothing was there.

FRAYER: So Shalabh didn't think much of his father's cough until his father developed a fever and tried to get up to go to the bathroom one night.

PRADHAN: He fell down. I went there, and I picked him up and put him in a bed. It was alarming for me. So I checked his oxygen level. It was an 87.

FRAYER: That's low. His dad was very sick.

PRADHAN: So I took him into the hospital. The counter, where the reception is there, he was not able to stand. The guy came, and he said that, no, we cannot take him.

FRAYER: They wouldn't take Shalabh's father without proof of a COVID positive test, but his test results were delayed. So they tried another hospital. By then, so many hospitals across India were filling up. And this hospital too refused to admit his father and refused to even give him any oxygen while they were waiting in the lobby.

PRADHAN: He barely walk. He barely stand. And they have put the stretcher out and say that, no, you take him out. And difficult for me to remember those moment.

FRAYER: Shalabh and his cousins worked the phones. His brother did, too, all the way from Chicago. They eventually found their father a hospital bed, and he was put on a ventilator. But by then, it was too late. On the evening of April 21, Sudheer Kumar Pradhan (ph), a defense scientist and father of two, died at age 78. The hospital demanded that Shalabh pick up his father's body immediately, in the middle of the night, and pay for his bed sheets. Shalabh cremated his father the next day alone.

PRADHAN: I lost my father. It was totally unfortunate. I was alone.

FRAYER: It was hard for everyone. Shalabh's children are 7 and 9.

PRADHAN: They were crying a lot. And they were just keeping a photograph in front of them, and they were just crying it.

RICHA SRIVASTAVA: We just did all the rituals within three days for my father-in-law and then came back.

FRAYER: Richa Srivastava (ph) is Shalabh's wife.

SRIVASTAVA: I mean, I traveled from my husband's city to my city. It was, like, two hours apart. Then everything happened so quick and so fast.

FRAYER: When they reached Richa's parents' house, they found her father suffering from COVID-like symptoms. And that night, he died.

SRIVASTAVA: Within a span of, like, three days, we both lost our fathers.

FRAYER: There wasn't even time to hospitalize him. Doctors later said it was likely a blood clot. They tested him for the coronavirus, and it came back positive two days after he died. Sheo Prakash Srivastava (ph), an insurance officer with two daughters, was 71.

SRIVASTAVA: Yeah, he was very social. He used to sit downstairs with my neighbors, you know? So people were, like, flabbergasted. Like, how come the person who was sitting just four, five days before, he just left all of a sudden and seemed to be pretty healthy also.

FRAYER: In the three weeks since, India has confirmed more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases a day. Richa, Shalabh, their children and Richa's mother have been isolating at home as the world's biggest COVID wave rages all around them. Today, India confirmed its deadliest day since the pandemic began - more than 4,200 new deaths.

Inside their house, this family is grieving, and they're also reliving their trauma. The TV news is now all about COVID and India's collapsing health system. Richa says she can't get it out of her mind - all those hospitals totally overwhelmed, turning away her father-in-law.

SRIVASTAVA: They were like, just take him. Keep him in the house. Keep him wherever you want, just take him away. I was just praying that this day should pass. It was one of the worst days of our lives.

FRAYER: Still at home, they're sorting through photos of their fathers at a family wedding, at the Statue of Liberty, of one of them in an elephant mask playing with the grandchildren.

SRIVASTAVA: A lot of memories that we had, and that is why it hurts even more. Because I keep on recalling those things that this is never going to happen again, this is never going to happen. He used to cut fruits for me, and I was like, nobody is going to cut fruits like this. All of these small gestures.

FRAYER: Memories too from the past few months when the pandemic gave them an opportunity to be together before it took them away. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "GOODBYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.