PHOTOS: The precarious lives of India’s COVID widows
During her husband’s lifetime, 24-year-old Shweta only left her home in Delhi to pick up her daughter from school. That changed after the field worker died during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. Now Shweta is still looking for work opportunities and trying to track down the COVID compensation she thinks she needs. she should have gotten from the government months ago.
For a year after her husband’s death, she had to send her 8-year-old child to live with her father because she could only afford salt and roti (flatbread) and had no phone line needed for them. child online studies.
“I had forgotten what vegetables and pulses looked like,” says Shweta, who says she passed out from hunger several times in 2020.
Shweta, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, says her six brothers have refused to offer any help. She says that Indian households treat their daughters as “paraya dhan”, which loosely translates to someone else’s property (in-laws). But her late husband’s family isn’t supportive either, she says. And a brother-in-law only made matters worse — he tore up the COVID death certificate at her husband’s funeral, creating additional hassle for Shweta, who had to provide proof to claim COVID compensation. Then she says he took the land which was to be her husband’s inheritance. “I feel desperately alone,” she says.
Due to financial problems just before her husband’s death, the family of three had moved into her aunt’s house. In order to stay after his death, Shweta agrees to do all the household chores. She also looked for a job, but with limited time and education, she could only find work to brand products and package them. The 14-hour days and her other responsibilities left her feeling weak, she says. In addition, travel expenses reduced his income.
She didn’t like leaving her daughter overnight, so she quit and continues to look for other options. She struggles to pay for her food because the prices are rising with inflation.
These hardships are common in India for widows like Shweta, who not only lost a loved one to COVID-19, but also the family’s sole breadwinner. In the patriarchal society that is India, only around 20% of the workforce is female, according to a 2020 World Bank report.
And many families marry off their daughters early rather than invest in their education, limiting their lifelong employment prospects.
Government support has been hard to come by, especially for women who lost their husbands in 2020. It was only after the brutal second Delta wave in 2021 that compensation was announced, amid confusion as to what documents would be accepted as evidence and how much money they would receive. Some families had burned the COVID death certificates of the deceased, mistakenly fearing the documents could be a source of contagion. Many more had no paperwork at all due to underreporting of COVID deaths in the country.
Here’s a look at what three other widows in Delhi are facing following the loss of their husbands during the pandemic.
Still grieving, feeling guilty
Shanti Devi is sitting up in bed, still numb with grief from losing her husband to COVID-19 in May 2021. She feels like she has no strength in her legs, and for months after the dead, she says her teenage son would have to carry her to the bathroom.
“Every time neighbors or relatives come by, they say it took you so long to get up and take care of your children,” she says, with a hint of guilt. “Others did it so fast!”
Devi is lucky that her husband left her a modest house with two small rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. But with the roof leaking and the floor collapsing, she asks, “Should we eat bricks?”
By the time she finally received government compensation for her husband’s death from COVID – 50,000 rupees ($650) in two installments and a monthly payment of 5,000 rupees ($65) – after five months without income, the debts had accumulated for food, school fees and shoes. Sending her three children to get the education she never had is essential for Devi. But she worries about the ambitions of her 17-year-old son, Yash Arya. “He wants to pursue his dream of studying animation in Mumbai,” says Devi, who prefers to work while studying and staying in Delhi. “My mind is unstable and I find it difficult. I cry like this every day. The children will eventually settle down, take care of their work. I will sit at home.”
‘I don’t even know the paths’
On the wall of Anita Sharma’s bedroom, 35, is a cheerful photo of her late husband Dinesh, a 44-year-old electronic marketer, wearing an oversized straw holiday hat.
Sharma, mother of 19-year-old Jhanvi and 14-year-old Yash, led a sheltered life. She proudly states, “My husband never let me work while he was alive. She adds nervously: “I don’t even know the roads. Once my daughter finds a job, she may be able to guide me.
But now she faces a bleak future. While her husband’s COVID treatment costs stood at Rs 16 lakhs (over $20,000) before his death in August 2020, she is burdened with debts, especially to her brother, who paid some of the bills and continues to give her money to meet the family’s day-to-day financial needs. She plans to sell her house.
As is common in India, when Sharma’s father passed away, his government job went to his brother and he lives with their mother in the family home. Still, she feels guilty for turning to him for help, especially because she’s one of four sisters. “If we sisters start asking for help, our brother will get mad at us. In my case, he already does so much for us,” she says gratefully. But her brother is thinking about getting married and Sharma worries that it won’t mean more money for her.
Due to the family’s financial difficulties, Jhanvi could not afford the nursing course which had been her father’s wish. She doesn’t even prepare for the next entrance exams. But Sharma is counting on her to find a job soon as they continue to deal with the trauma of the past two years.
Yash, haunted by the image of his father’s eyes closed by cotton, as is the Hindu tradition during the last rites, suffers from anxiety attacks. When a stomach infection recently sent Sharma to the hospital, he feared that, like his father, his mother would not return.
“I knew I had to get up”
While Radha Devi was raising their three children, her husband worked as a chef in Japan. He was making a lot of money – until five years ago when he came home to need a kidney transplant. She donated her kidney; the operation went well but left them deeply in debt, forcing him to start working as an aide at a private educational institute during the first wave of the pandemic.
During the second wave, at the end of April 2021, the whole family caught COVID-19. Devi and the children have recovered.
“He didn’t,” says Devi, who says she took him to a government hospital an hour and a half away on the outskirts of town. No one else would risk being infected, so they had to wait four hours before a government vehicle took them away. “I also had COVID at the time, and I pleaded that if they didn’t take her away, we could both die,” Devi says.
After her husband was hospitalized, Devi was not allowed to be with him. Medical staff put him on a ventilator that he shared with other patients on the ward, who took turns receiving oxygen. But there just wasn’t enough for everyone and the situation continued to deteriorate. “So many people died in front of me,” she said, describing the long line of people entering the emergency department and the bodies being transported. “It looked like people were going to the hospital to die. They were going there but not coming back.”
Their eldest daughter got married while she was in hospital, as often happens in India when a relative is on her deathbed, so they know they have fulfilled their responsibilities. “This last day, he just wanted to go home,” Devi said, breaking down again.
She is angry with the central government, which she blames for not gathering enough oxygen for patients and not doing enough to help families get back on their feet. “They shouldn’t have given us these small sums. Instead, they should have given us a job,” Devi says.
After a desperate six-month search, Devi was again employed as an assistant. She now works seven days a week for a private educational institute, Target, escorting students to and from their homes, preparing meals and cleaning. She earns enough to cover daily expenses and is happy to be busy.
“I knew I had to get up,” she said. “I had to change for the children, otherwise they too would be left behind.”
Ruhani Kaur is a multimedia journalist focusing on gender and the environment. Last year, she received a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists to cover the impact of the pandemic on women and their daughters. Her work “Invisible Women” about sex selection in India won the Days Japan Photojournalism Award. Before freelancing, she was a photo editor at Open Magazine and a photographer at Indian Express. His work can be seen at www.ruhanikaur.com [Copyright 2022 NPR]