Smell of death in India air, SUNY Prof reports

·5 min read

May 30—PLATTSBURGH — "COVID hell on earth."

This is the description Dr. Shakuntala Rao hears from family and colleagues in India.

"I think one of the things that a journalist wrote on their Twitter, and I think that kind of exemplifies and encapsulates what is happening the way they see it on the ground is 'COVID hell on earth,'" Rao, a professor of communication studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, said.

"If you can imagine, right, hell on earth as far as COVID is concerned, they consider that to be the case as far as what's going on in India."


At Plattsburgh State, Rao's teaching and research areas include global media, global journalism, media ethics and popular culture.

In India, she's a frequent visiting scholar and has trained media professionals as part of U.S. State Department initiatives.

From India, Rao holds a B.A. Miranda House, University of Delhi and a Diploma (Journalism) from the Center of Mass Media.

Here, she received a M.A. at Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

India is the new epicenter of the global pandemic, according to a recent BBC report.

"There are two major things, but one of the big things that they are seeing is the number of dead," Rao said.

"There's a report that comes out of the Indian government Ministry of Health every day as far as the number of dead.

"They (media colleagues) think that is an underestimation of the worst kind. I haven't heard any of them say anything specific of how much they think, but I suspect from what I'm getting from reading their Facebook and all their posts, they think that it's four or six times higher than what is being reported."

There are contentious debates about the hidden death rate.

"People are asking, 'Well how do you know?'" she said.

"What's happening on the ground? How do you know that?' I think the fact that Delhi has run out of firewood to burn funeral pyres is an example."


Rao talks to her family pretty much every few days and one of her friends.

"There is nobody in my immediate family who has died," she said.

"In my extended family, I have had quite a few deaths. One of the things that my friend said is 'Delhi air is smelling like dead bodies' because there are so many funeral pyres that are being set.

"As somebody who grew up in India, I can totally envision that because you knew when the cremation ground was busy.

"You knew it because you could smell it in the air. It is a very specific kind of smell. That sort of stuck with me because she is describing that."

Her friend avoids going out on the balcony of her flat because she doesn't want to smell the air.

"Those are the stories," Rao said.

"Some of it anecdotal. Some of it is, of course, being reported by the global media. Those are my immediate thoughts."


Rao's mother, uncle, aunts, and tons of cousins live in India.

"Many of them have gotten it and recovered, but no one seriously ill as of yet," she said.

"One of the things we, the Diaspora, is finding out is basically you get up in the morning, and this what I've been hearing from even friends here, that you get up in the morning and you are scared of what's going to be on your WhatsApp, right.

"Who do you know is going to be ill?"


The Indian COVID-19 variant is highly infectious and has spread to at least 53 territories, according to the World Health Organization.

"Clearly there is something going on there, right, but we don't know," Rao said.

"I think many of us just get up and sort of see, 'Hey, is there any any bad news on your WhatsApp?'"

One haunting image for her is a woman standing by her husband's funeral pyre.

"There are like 500 of them burning," she said.

"Some of the stuff that is pretty powerful what is happening. It think it's too early for us to figure out the socio-cultural impact of a pandemic such as this.

"Really, truthfully, have we figured it out in the United States? I don't think so. Six-hundred thousand people have just kind of died.

"The BIPOC community has been vastly impacted. Have we figured out the impact of it? I don't think so."

In the same way, Rao thinks it's going to take a while before Indians really figure out the impact of such a huge loss of lives.

"There has been some parallels that some folks have studied about comparisons of the Indian pandemic of 2021 to the 1918 pandemic of India," she said.

"There have been some good research out there about there."

During the 1918 influenza pandemic in India, mortality was at most 13.88 million, according to "Mortality From the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919: The Case of India," a June 2012 research article by Siddharth Chandra, Goran Kuljanin and Jennifer Wray published online at:

"Remember that was under the British," Rao said.

"Hopefully, we won't go anywhere near that."


The Worldometer reports 27,410,074 coronavirus cases, 315,869 deaths and 24,693,493 recovered in India as of noon on May 27.

"Some people are already saying that India has passed the 1 million death mark," she said.

"I don't know how this is going to end in terms of the socioeconomic impact of that kind of death.

"Even internally, I think there are going to be a lot of changes. I hope so. I hope things are kind of shaken up a little bit, especially with Prime Minister Modi, who kind of dropped the ball in my opinion and kind of didn't really take it seriously."

Among media circles, Modi is called "India's Donald Trump."

"For a reason," Rao said.

"They were very close. They shared a lot of the same government philosophies if you can call it that. That might be too generous.

"In that sense, neither of them took the threat of the virus very seriously."

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