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PHOTOS: The precarious lives of India's COVID widows

In India's waves of COVID-19, the official death count is more than half a million. These are three of the many women who lost a spouse to the virus: from left, Shanti Devi, Anita Sharma and Radha Devi. For many of the COVID widows in India, where only 20% of the work force is female, their grief has been compounded by financial difficulties after the death of their partner.
Ruhani Kuar for NPR

When her husband was alive, 24-year-old Shweta would only leave her house 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 always out searching for work opportunities and trying to track down the COVID compensation she believes 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 to live with her father as she could only afford salt and roti (flat bread) and didn't have a phone line necessary for the child's online studies.

"I had forgotten what vegetables and pulses looked like," says Shweta, who says she fainted from hunger several times in 2020.

Shweta, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, says her six brothers refused to offer any help. She says Indian households treat their daughters as "paraya dhan," which loosely translates as someone else's (the in-laws') property. But her late husband's family isn't supporting her either she says. And one brother-in-law has only made the situation worse — he tore up the COVID death certificate at her husband's funeral, creating additional hassles for Shweta, who needed to provide proof to apply for COVID compensation. Then she says he took the land that was to be her husband's inheritance. "I feel desperately alone," she says.

Because of financial problems just before her husband's death, the family of three had moved into his aunt's house. In order to stay on after he died, Shweta agree to do all of the housework. She also looked for a job, but with limited time and education, she could only find work sticking branding on products and packing them. The 14-hour days plus her other responsibilities left her feeling weak, she says. In addition, the commute costs cut into her earnings.

She didn't liked leaving her daughter at night, so she quit and continues to look for other options. She is struggling to pay for food as costs are rising with inflation.

These hardships are common in India for widows like Shweta, who lost not just a loved one to COVID-19 but also the sole breadwinner in the family. In the patriarchal society that is India, only about 20% of the workforce is female, according to a 2020 World Bank report.

And many families marry their daughters off early rather than invest in their education, limiting their job prospects for life.

Government support has been tough to get, especially for women who lost a husband in 2020. It wasn't until after the brutal second Delta wave in 2021 that compensation was announced, amid confusion over which documents would be accepted as proof and how much money they would receive. Some families had burned the COVID death certificates of the deceased, mistakenly fearing that the documents could be a source of contagion. Many others had no paperwork at all due to the country's underreporting of COVID fatalities.

Here's a look at what three other widows in Delhi are facing in the aftermath of the loss of their husband during the pandemic.

<em>Shanti Devi's husband died of COVID in May 2021. Her usual resting spot in her modest home is on the bed by a window. </em><em>Her 17-year-old son, Yash Arya, is trying to balance his own dreams with his family's needs after his father's death.</em>
/ Ruhani Kaur for NPR
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Ruhani Kuar for NPR
<em>Shanti Devi's husband died of COVID in May 2021. Her usual resting spot in her modest home is on the bed by a window. </em><em>Her 17-year-old son, Yash Arya, is trying to balance his own dreams with his family's needs after his father's death.</em>

Still grieving, feeling guilt

Shanti Devi

Shanti Devi sits propped up in bed, still numb from the grief of losing her husband to COVID-19 in May 2021. She feels as if she has no strength in her legs, and for months after the death, she says her teenage son would have to carry her to the bathroom.

"Whenever neighbors or relatives come, they say you've taken so long to stand up and take care of your kids," she says, with a tinge of guilt. "Others have done it so quickly!"

Devi is fortunate that her husband left her a modest house with two small rooms, a kitchen and bathroom. But with the roof leaking and the floor caving in, she asks, "Should we eat bricks?"

By the time she finally received government compensation for the COVID death of her husband — Rs 50,000 ($650) in two installments and a monthly payment of Rs 5000 ($65) — after five months of no income, debts had piled up for food, school fees and shoes. Sending her three children to get the education that she never had is critical for Devi. But she worries about her 17-year-old son Yash Arya's ambitions. "He wants to pursue his dream to study animation in Mumbai," says Devi, who prefers he work while studying and staying in Delhi. "My mind is unsettled and I'm finding it difficult. I cry like this every day. Kids will settle eventually, get busy with their work. I'll be left sitting at home."

<em>Anita Sharma, a homemaker, in her bedroom with her late husband's picture from a vacation on the wall. He died of COVID in August 2020. Because of the family's financial woes, her 19-year-old Jhanvi couldn't afford the nursing course that had been her father's wish. Sharma hopes that Jhanvi gets a job soon.</em>
/ Ruhani Kaur for NPR
/
Ruhani Kuar for NPR
<em>Anita Sharma, a homemaker, in her bedroom with her late husband's picture from a vacation on the wall. He died of COVID in August 2020. Because of the family's financial woes, her 19-year-old Jhanvi couldn't afford the nursing course that had been her father's wish. Sharma hopes that Jhanvi gets a job soon.</em>

'I don't even know the ways around'

Anita Sharma

On the wall of 35-year-old Anita Sharma's bedroom is a jovial picture of her late husband Dinesh, a 44-year-old electronics marketing professional, wearing an oversized straw vacation hat.

Sharma, mother to 19-year-old Jhanvi and 14-year-old Yash, has led a sheltered life. She states proudly, "My husband never let me work while he was alive." Nervously she adds, "I don't even know the ways around. Once my daughter manages to get a job, maybe she can guide me."

But now she is facing a bleak future. As her husband's COVID treatment costs piled up to Rs 16 lakhs (over $20,000) before he passed in August 2020, she is ridden with debt, especially to her brother, who paid some of the medical bills and continues to give her money to meet the family's daily financial needs. She is considering selling her house.

As is common in India, when Sharma's father died, his government job went to her brother, and he lives with their mother in the family home. Still, she feels guilty turning to him for assistance, especially because she's one of four sisters. "If we sisters start asking for help, our brother will get upset with us. In my case, he is already doing so much for us," she says gratefully. But her brother is thinking about getting married, and Sharma worries that will mean no more money for her.

Because of the family's financial woes, Jhanvi couldn't afford the nursing course that had been her father's wish. She isn't even preparing for the upcoming entrance exams. But Sharma is counting on her to get a job soon while they continue to struggle with the trauma of the past two years.

Yash — haunted by the image of his father's eyes shut with cotton, as is the Hindu tradition when last rites are conducted — suffers from bouts of anxiety. When a stomach infection recently sent Sharma to the hospital, he got scared that like his father, his mother wouldn't come back.

'I knew I had to stand up'

Radha Devi

While Radha Devi raised their three children, her husband worked as a chef in Japan. He earned good money — until five years ago, when he returned home in need of a kidney transplant. She donated her kidney; the operation went well but left them deeply in debt, compelling her to start working as an aide in a private educational institute during the first wave of the pandemic.

During the second wave, at the end of April 2021, the entire family caught COVID-19. Devi and the children recovered.

"He didn't," says Devi, who recounts taking him to a government hospital an hour and half away in the outskirts of the city. Nobody else would take the chance of getting infected, so they had to wait for four hours for a government vehicle to take them. "I had COVID too then, and pleaded that if they didn't take him in, we both could die," Devi says.

After her husband was hospitalized, Devi was not allowed to be with him. The medical staff put him on a ventilator he shared with other patients in the ward, who took turns getting oxygen. But there simply wasn't enough to go around and the situation continued to deteriorate. "So many people died in front of me," she says, describing the long line of people coming into the emergency ward and the bodies being carted out. "It looked like people were going into the hospital to die. They were going but not coming back."

Their eldest daughter was married during his hospital stay, as often happens in India when a parent is on their death bed, so they can know they've completed their responsibilities. "That last day, he just wanted to come home," Devi says, breaking down again.

<em>Pictures of Anand Singh, who died of COVID at age 50, with his wife, Radha Devi, and their three children are displayed on a wall in their living room in their modest home.</em>
/ Ruhani Kaur for NPR
/
Ruhani Kuar for NPR
<em>Pictures of Anand Singh, who died of COVID at age 50, with his wife, Radha Devi, and their three children are displayed on a wall in their living room in their modest home.</em>

She's angry at the central government, which she blames for not marshalling adequate oxygen supplies for patients and not doing enough to help families get back on their feet. "They shouldn't have given us these small amounts. Instead, they should have given us a job," Devi says.

After a desperate six-month search, Devi was employed again as an aide. She now works seven days a week for a private educational institute, Target, accompanying students to and from their homes, cooking meals and cleaning. She earns enough to cover daily expenses and is happy to be busy.

"I knew I had to stand up," she says. "I had to change myself for the kids, or they too would get left behind."

Ruhani Kaur is a multimedia journalist who focuses on gender and environment. Last year she received a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists to cover the pandemic's impact on women and their daughters. Her work "Invisible Women" on sex selection in India won the Days Japan Photojournalism Award. Prior to freelancing, she was the photo editor at Open Magazine and a photographer with Indian Express. Her work can be seen at www.ruhanikaur.com

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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