Jyot Jeet has pledged to care for all dead as if they were his own family and to perform traditional, albeit abbreviated, burial rites in a makeshift crematorium in the Indian capital.
Sometimes the devastation overwhelms him. This happened one recent morning when he was crying next to a woman as she stood next to the pyre of her husband and young son.
The father and son had both died of Covid-19.
“It’s a moment that will haunt me forever,” 27-year-old Jeet told NBC News by phone from the Seemapuri crematorium, a temporary facility set up to deal with the New Delhi tsunami of Covid-19 deaths to manage something. “People die in front of our eyes every day. These are people who should have been saved. “
Jeet is chairman of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal (SBS Foundation), a Sikh non-governmental organization that has been providing medical care to disadvantaged people in the country for more than 25 years. It also offers free cremations for the poor and the homeless.
Recently, Jeet has volunteered his time to cremate those who died of Covid-19. The foundation began this effort in September at the height of the country’s first wave of pandemics.
Then the organization burned about 10 bodies a day. Now, in the midst of a devastating second wave, more than 120 cremations are being performed daily, he said.
While there are no official figures showing how many bodies were cremated across the country, photos and videos of smoldering pyre in India’s makeshift crematoria symbolize the country’s Covid-19 crisis. The parking lots in New Delhi are also being remodeled to cope with the increasing number of corpses.
And it’s not just India’s crematoria that are overwhelmed. New Delhi’s main Muslim cemetery for Covid-19 victims has also run out of space, resulting in some Muslims having to cremate loved ones, Reuters reported.
According to the latest census, almost 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, around 14 percent Muslim, and just over 2 percent Christian. Hindus are usually cremated, while Muslims and Christians traditionally choose burials. Other religions, including Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, make up about 4 percent of the population and have a variety of burial rites.
With more than 200,000 people officially dying from the virus – many experts say the real number is likely much higher – Covid-19 has turned these ancient end-of-life traditions on their heads for many.
The recent surge has panicked and hurt millions across the country as they desperately try to navigate the country’s collapsing healthcare system. Thousands use social media to get help securing an empty hospital bed, an oxygen supply, or the antiviral drug remdesivir. Many desperately ask doctors to let their loved ones sleep on the hospital floors.
According to Jeet, several senior volunteers in his group tested positive during the last wave. As a result, he had to rely on other members of the public to help with the cremations.
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“We are aware of the risk associated with this work,” he said. “Of course we are afraid, but it would be a disappointment for our nation if we did not ascend. If we are to die, we will die.”
According to Jeet, volunteers in protective clothing work in the scorching heat, sometimes up to 20 hours a day. Together, the team builds stakes, burns the corpses, and then clears the area to start the process over. Team members limit their water breaks even when temperatures rise above 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Most do not dare to take off their masks for fear of becoming infected.
“Day after day we are surrounded by the smell of burning meat and the sounds of families crying,” said Jeet.
His team had to forego the extensive rituals that Hindus believe to free the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
“It’s like mass murder,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces growing public anger over his handling of the crisis. He remained largely silent after allowing religious festivals and election campaigns attended by thousands to continue.
Anger in the country increased on Monday after the government of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of dealing with the pandemic.
Some have now criticized media coverage of these mass crematoria for the presentation of the “sacred” rites of the Hindus.
Despite the hard work of Jeet and his colleagues, corpses pile up in front of the crematorium, some of which are not claimed.
Nevertheless, the foundation tries to give everyone “the dignity they deserve,” he said.
“I just want to be able to be with this person for the last time and give them a few moments of peace,” Jeet said. “It’s hard to describe the feeling, but we feel very connected to their souls.”