How powerful the Vice President of India is

Hardly any other big city reports as many corona cases as Delhi. On the way from the morgue to the crematorium

Coronavirus numbers are falling in India, but are skyrocketing in the capital Delhi. The virus hits a city that is hard to breathe anyway.

A man pushes the third and final stretcher out of the morgue. Like the others before, he leaves her standing in front of a shed, a kind of gatekeeper's house. The family is waiting there. She takes one last look at the person, who immediately disappears under a white plastic sheet. She signs a piece of paper. Now the body belongs to Jitender Singh Shunty. It stands a little apart. "We got four this morning," he says.

Shunty, 58, is a man with a bright yellow turban whose right hand seems to have grown together with his radio. It's noon in East Delhi and Shunty is spraying disinfectant on the white body bag.

Hardly any other big city is currently reporting as many new corona cases as Delhi - a precise comparison is difficult because there is no ranking. In the past week, an average of 6,000 people were infected in Delhi every day, according to official figures; around 30 million people live in the Indian capital. In India, the number of coronavirus cases has actually decreased in the past few weeks. But the capital has been reporting highs since the beginning of the month.

Untouchable dead

Together with his son Jyot Jeet, 27, Shunty runs the charitable organization «Saheed Bhagat Sing Seva Da». This operates an ambulance service, distributes food to the hungry and provides disaster relief. And it takes care of the corpses of the poorest: They cremate the dead who have no relatives and those whose relatives cannot afford a burial. They have been doing this for 23 years. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and the organization has to burn so many dead that it has become a permanent fixture in one of the state crematoriums.

The families of Covid-19 victims turn to Shunty because they are not allowed to or do not want to carry out the burn themselves. Most of the time, they are in quarantine or are afraid of contracting the virus if they die. "I have seen sons who do not want to cremate their fathers, these dead are considered untouchable," says Jyot Jeet, the son wears the same bright yellow turban as his father. The organization has burned 512 bodies since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the state on Friday. The death rates in India are relatively low, around 100 people officially died of Covid-19 in Delhi last week. Jyot Jeet believes that there are actually four times as many, "this is the world capital of the dead".

Delhi doesn't feel like a city of the dead. The markets are busy, the train station is crowded and the parks are full of families. On Sunday they have a picnic or celebrate a child's birthday.

"In the past few weeks, the feeling has spread that the pandemic is over," says Arvind Kumar, chief physician and pulmonary surgeon at Delhi's Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. "All the people who don't follow the rules are one reason for the increase," says Kumar, "the other is air pollution." Delhi is again struggling with poor air quality this year: In November, the air quality index easily reached the highest warning level, "dangerous". After a few good days, the next wave of smog is expected in December, due to the heating in the city, the many fires and the farmers in the surrounding area who are burning down their fields.

A week ago India celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights. The celebrations took place the days before, and large families came together on Diwali. Delhi has banned the traditional use of fireworks so as not to worsen air quality. On Diwali there was a spark and a crash from the roofs of Delhi's houses.

Kumar says there are indications that the coronavirus is spreading better in cities with high levels of particulate matter. The virus rides on the fine dust particles, so to speak, into the lungs and settles there deeply. "Air pollution is also causing a higher death rate in Delhi," says Kumar. He refers to a Harvard study; it shows that air pollution increases the death rate. According to Kumar, many of Delhi's residents have previous illnesses, high blood pressure, breathing problems and their lungs are already affected. It's like the virus hits a city full of heavy smokers.

"It is very possible that we have not yet reached the peak," says Kumar, the Diwali parties are unlikely to have been reflected in the statistics.

Serve the nation

Jitender Singh Shunty races through East Delhi in a jeep at the head of the convoy, followed by the ambulances. Shunty uses sirens and flashing lights, but mostly the horn to make room in the crowded streets. He was once a regional politician for the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party. He has given up politics, he says, but he still knows how to stage himself. There is something irritating about the way he poses with dead people on social media. His son Jyot Jeet says they want to serve society, the nation. Delhi's government is overwhelmed. He says that one of her volunteers recently died of Covid-19 and India’s Vice President has condoled.

"Tiger 1 to Tiger 2," Shunty growls into the radio, the crematorium is close.

Delhi's government has decided to take tough measures to curb the latest Covid 19 wave; according to official figures, only 177 intensive care beds with ventilators are free in the city. Anyone who does not wear a mask in public pays the equivalent of around 25 francs fine. Two markets were closed on the weekend, but then reopened a day later. It is like most of the times in India's fight against the virus: the measures are rigorous, but not thought through to the end. The shopkeepers and street vendors have to keep earning money in order not to go hungry, and hardly anyone in the city can pay a 25-franc fine. As of last week, only 50 people have been allowed to attend weddings in Delhi.

In the hall of the Rockland Hotel the chairs are actually ready, four rows, and in front, behind the table with the pink velvet cover, two chairs for the bride and groom. But Rishi Srivastava, 52, hardly has any guests who are seated. Otherwise weddings take place in the hall in the basement, “between 150 and 200 every year in all hotels”. Srivastava operates six mid-range hotels in Delhi, and this year he only has three or four wedding bookings. The wedding season is actually approaching in Delhi - according to the Hindu horoscope, dates between October and March are particularly promising. "But people don't want to come to the weddings," says Srivastava, "in the end, even fewer turn up than advertised." Before the pandemic, it was the other way around: more and more emerged than advertised.

Like many in the city, Srivastava lives from weddings, banquets make up around half of its annual income. They are no longer available, he suffers like the other hoteliers, the cooks, the florists - weddings are a 50 billion dollar industry in India. Srivastava has laid off more than half of its employees. Those who can somehow postpone their wedding for a year. Those who can afford it rent a property in the Delhi's area, where huge parties are still allowed.

Some weddings will be held through Zoom this year. In Delhi, many people try to carry on as normal somehow.

60 francs for the wood

The crematorium is just beyond the city limits. There are 24 recesses in three concrete surfaces. Fires burn in eight. The smoke drifts away over the nearby houses.

The relatives help piling up the logs until the white plastic can no longer be seen. The dead lies in a wooden tent. The logs for such a funeral cost around 60 francs. Many cannot afford to get paid shunty. He doesn't seem tired, rather rushed, he hardly sleeps. There is much to do. The last piece of wood burns, Shunty puts it on the pile himself.