Ujwala Dupare grabbed her younger brother’s hand as he tried to catch his breath in the back of the car.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m here,” she remembers Praveen Durge, 40, when the family was desperately looking for an empty hospital bed in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. “I’m right next to you.”
“He was getting scared and quietly telling us he thought he was going to die,” Dupare told NBC News in a telephone interview. “I kept reassuring him and holding his hand.”
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As they neared the last hospital on their list, Durge’s wife, Khushbu, saw that his eyes had closed. She screamed and called his name. “Wake up, please, get up,” she called out loud to Dupare.
The married father of one died in the back seat of the car from complications related to Covid-19.
According to official figures, Durge is one of more than 187,000 people who have died from the virus that struck India.
The country reported more than 332,000 new infections on Friday, a world record for the second straight day that brought the total number of cases since the pandemic started to over 16 million.
With more than 4 million registered cases, Maharashtra is the worst-hit state in the country with nearly 1.4 billion people.
Images of mass burnings circulate online as India grapples with death tides and a collapsing healthcare system.
The surge has brought pain, fear and concern to millions of families across the country. As they desperately try to weather the crisis, thousands of Indians turn to social media for help.
Messages from people trying to find a vacant bed, scarce oxygen supply, or the antiviral drug remdesivir flooded Twitter and Facebook.
They were even joined by hospitals. On Friday, a major chain in the capital New Delhi asked for more supplies on Twitter in an effort to save the growing number of patients struggling to breathe.
A fire in a hospital in the suburbs of Mumbai killed 13 people on Friday. This was the most recent accident that hit a virus-infected facility. On Wednesday, 22 patients died in a public hospital in Maharashtra when their oxygen supply was depleted due to a leaking tank.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, increasingly angry in public about his management of the crisis, has remained largely silent while religious festivals and election campaigns attended by thousands have continued.
Durge, a school teacher, developed a fever and cough for the first time last week.
He suspected he might have caught Covid-19 and went to a private hospital on Saturday in hopes of being admitted and receiving treatment. But the hospital ran out of space or Covid-19 test kits and only sent him home with medication to relieve his sore throat.
His health deteriorated rapidly the next day, his sister said. He woke up at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning and could not breathe properly.
“My husband, his wife and I immediately put him in the car and we drove from hospital to hospital looking for an empty hospital bed,” she said.
For more than three hours, early in the morning on Sunday morning, they went to about 12 hospitals in the city of Chandrapur, she said.
“Everyone turned us away,” said Dupare.
“Not a single doctor came out to look at my brother, even though we asked them to. We were so desperate that we even asked the doctor to let him sleep on the hospital floor. Everyone said no.”
A post mortem confirmed that Durge was Covid-19 positive.
His family, unable to perform the traditional Hindu funeral rites due to his status as a Covid-19 patient, had to conduct the funeral in a hospital-run crematorium.
Durge leaves behind his wife and a five-year-old son.
“His son keeps asking, ‘Where’s papa?'” Said Dupare. “What can we tell him? He’s a little kid and doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s too traumatic.”
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Durge’s wife, Khushbu, has now also tested positive and is currently alone in a state quarantine facility.
For Dupare, however, it is about more than the tragedy of a single family.
“Forty-eight people died of Covid-19 in one of the hospitals we visited that night,” she said.
“I want people to know what is happening in India. This is real.”