Arete’s Stories: A year in COVID from the UK & India, told by Vijay Pandey and Leon Neal
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. A masked security guard stands outside a cremation ground in New Delhi, India.
As the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 continue in the UK and some other countries, vaccination rates are on the rise, and COVID-19 deaths are falling. This has come after almost two years of ongoing social and technological battles with the virus.
The extraordinary work of the brave photographers who have been documenting this global pandemic must not be underestimated. Unlike photographing sub-genres of war, or natural disasters, these photographers aren’t offered hazard pay and are mostly self-insured. Despite this, they continue to capture the unfiltered stories that will go down in history.
We spoke with two such photographers, Vijay Pandey, who has been documenting the effects of Covid-19 and lockdown in India, and Leon Neal, who has been documenting the pandemic in the UK.
These are their stories…
Vijay Pandey, India
Vijay Pandey has spent over 20 years in India working with both National Publications and VICE News. In recent years, Vijay has ventured into freelance photojournalism, covering a broad range of news events including the Nepal earthquake, the Indian conflict between parliamentarian & Maoist supporters, the Delhi Riots of 2020 and, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Where have you been covering Covid in the last year?
“I have lived and worked in New Delhi for nearly two decades and covered the pandemic since it first started to take hold in the spring of 2020, both in New Delhi and in surrounding districts. I continue to do this.
While always very careful to take safety precautions — gloves, double masks, disinfectant and eye protection — I still consider myself incredibly lucky not to have contracted the virus or to have had any close friends or family die or fall seriously ill. But I do know that several photojournalists have died in India during the pandemic, some of them former colleagues from the field.”
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. A homeless boy sits on a deserted street as New Delhi continues under lockdown during the Coronavirus Pandemic in New Delhi, India. In the bustling market of Chandni Chowk in front of the famous Red Fort, there are only homeless, beggars and migrant labour as all shops and establishments are closed.
What was the general response to Covid in India?
“The initial response from many people was of panic. Mass migration started very quickly after the first lockdown started. Thousands of people just left the cities and started walking, fleeing the city to return to more rural areas. All the trains and buses were suspended, so there was no other option.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. Migrant workers rush to board the final buses to reach their native places, in the outskirts of Delhi, India.
Those with the lowest income were undoubtedly the worst affected in the first wave, people who live hand to mouth. They had no other option but to leave urban areas and walk back to their family homes. With many people in lockdown in the cities, many job opportunities have gone, and many people can no longer afford their rent.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. Migrant workers returning from rural parts of the country at Kaushambi bus terminal in the outskirts of New Delhi. Amid absence of skilled employment in villages, migrant workers who left for home during coronavirus lockdown are returning to Cities.
There was very little government support, no transport, food or water. And reported beatings by the police forces of people who were walking home — as, technically, they were out after curfew.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. A construction labourer Hari Om holds his eight months old son while walking back to his native village in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, in New Delhi. Tikamgarh is approximately 550 kms from Delhi. As the work was stopped and contractors ask the labourers to leave the construction site, migrant labourers who fear dying not of the disease but rather of starvation, have decided not to wait. Unable to afford food and rent, migrant workers are walking back to their native villages, hundreds of miles away, during the World’s largest Lockdown.
About 25% of people were forced to leave the cities; if you worked for the government or had savings, you were ok, but those in the private sector or gig economy were not supported. This lack of support, and response from the government, provoked a lot of anger towards the establishment.
This led the government to relaxing lockdown measures after two months. There are almost no jobs in rural India, so people returned to the cities. Despite Covid-19 still raging and many, many people dying every day, people were flooding back into the cities.
Although it may seem like a simple choice between your health and your pocket, it was not for many. Both would result in death, but at least there was a chance this wouldn’t happen if you caught Covid-19; death was almost certain if you had no job and no income.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. Relatives of a person who died of COVID 19 performing the last rites during cremation at Nigambodh Ghat crematorium in New Delhi, India.
It was very clear in India, what the priorities were during the pandemic, and it wasn’t the lives of most of the people. When local party elections came around, they were not postponed, the rallies went ahead, and many of the politicians did not wear masks and set a good example.
Thousands of people would gather for the rallies, which acted like a super-spreader event, and the result was thousands of deaths, particularly of many teachers who were required to do election duty”.
What are the challenges of trying to convey the pandemic through photography?
“I think there are two really challenging things. It was the first pandemic of this scale I have seen, and in my home country too. The first, and obvious, challenge is the risk to my own health.
Particularly when I was in the hospitals, I was really worried that I might catch Covid; the health system was overwhelmed, there were people everywhere, on the floors, the corridors.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. The body of the man who died of coronavirus (COVID-19) kept in a waiting room before the funeral at Nigambodh Crematorium in New Delhi.
The hospitals were full, and the cremation grounds were full. Bodies were being burned in parking lots because there was no space left. The chimneys in the cremation grounds were melting as they were working 24/7. It was awful.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. Bodies of Coronavirus (Covid19) victims lay before being cremated at Gazipur crematorium in New Delhi.
This second really challenging thing is what the pandemic did to my soul; the helplessness and guilt I felt.
People were turning to me and asking for help to find them hospital beds or oxygen cylinders. I tried, but I couldn’t do anything. I saw people dying outside of the hospital, waiting for treatments; there was no oxygen, beds or medicine.
Photo: Vijay Pandey/Arete. Women mourn during the cremation of a person who died of COVID-19 at Nigambodh Ghat crematorium in New Delhi, India.
I saw people carrying patients from one hospital to another, searching for a bed. Children were dying in front of me, gasping for air.
Experiencing this made me really sad. But I felt I had to do it; had to keep on photographing. The only hope I have is that sharing these stories and photographs on my channels will somehow lead to some action, some more help for these people”.
Leon Neal, United Kingdom
Leon Neal is a winner of The Times/Tabasco Young Photographer of the Year scholarship and a former Times. Leon also spent ten years working in a staff position at the world’s oldest global news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP), before moving to the Getty Images editorial team based in London. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.
Tell me about where you have been covering Covid in the last year?
“For the best part of 2020, I was covering COVID-19 in the UK. My first experience of how this new virus would be received came when I witnessed the arrival of a flight of citizens being repatriated via RAF Brize Norton, escorted on to coaches by a team in hazmat suits, but then driven away by a very concerned looking driver, wearing just his regular cardigan and no facemask. This confusion of how to go forward became a theme for the coming year.
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images. A concerned-looking coach driver tasked with transporting a number of repatriated citizens from RAF Brize Norton.
Based in London, the effects of COVID-19 induced lockdowns became obvious quite quickly. London’s theatres, stores, and tourist attractions closed their doors, and the capital fell silent.
In fact, the streets were so empty that it presented a great opportunity to head out and record some of London’s iconic landmarks in this new, deserted world. I’d ticked off a few by the time I arrived at the pedestrian crossing outside Abbey Road studios, made famous by The Beatles.
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images. Line repainting on the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing.
I waited around forty minutes for someone to cross, but the streets were deserted. Suddenly, an enormous brightly-painted truck pulled up next to the crossing, which I then realised was a highway maintenance vehicle. With traffic at a bare minimum, the local council were also seizing the opportunity presented by the unique nature of lockdown to repaint the lines on this iconic zebra crossing.
In May, I had my first experience documenting the important work to tackle COVID-19 head-on, being carried out by the NHS daily. I spent some time with the South Central Ambulance Service team around the Southampton area. Thanks to a pool arrangement negotiated by photographer Will Oliver, the NHS allowed each agency the opportunity to document a different area of support and care, and Getty Images was lucky enough to secure time with SCAS.
Photo: Leon Neal/ Getty Images. Ambulances of the South Central Ambulance Service queued up to deliver suspected Covid-19 positive patients to hospital.
Hearing the stories of how many of the ambulance crew members and paramedics had already suffered through COVID-19, with some members of the team still in hospital on ventilators, gave me a far greater awareness of infection and precautions. The mental and physical toil faced by the teams was overlaid with the type of humour that I recognised from my colleagues in the news media; a reliance on each other to get through what can feel like a daily onslaught of downward-spiralling news.
Having to treat each call as if the patient is COVID-positive adds an extra layer of duty and precaution. The smallest slip or shortcut taken could potentially lead to further infections among your friends and colleagues. As I returned to my hotel each evening, I went through a methodical clean of all my camera equipment, phone and other items used through the day before starting again the next day. When you think of all the items in an ambulance, you start to realise the huge scale of logistics involved with the new normal.”
What was the general response to Covid in the UK? How were people striking a balance between earning a living and adhering to lockdown?
“Restrictions and lockdowns of varying strengths continued throughout the year.
The public were adopting the old adage; adapt and survive. Driving home one day, I passed a couple who had created their own alfresco gym next to their housing block. Elsewhere, Reverend Lucy Winkett, rector of St James’ Piccadilly, invited me to attend as she battled technology to hold one of her first online services.
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images. A family brings their gym equipment outside and trains on the street next to their housing block.
Businesses, too, were facing incredible pressures. Among those struggling, taxi drivers had seen a total collapse in their fares. A virtual ban on international travel resulted in no passengers or tourists arriving, and the taxi ranks around London’s airports were packed with waiting cars but no business.
At London Heathrow, I was able to speak with just a few of those in the queue to pick up a customer. Again and again, I heard the same story; as fares dried up, drivers were forced to wait for enormous lengths of time between customers. Many I spoke to were sleeping in their cabs and waiting as long as thirty-five hours to make their way to the front of the line. At the end of all of that, the average fare was working out to be around £40.
Covid-induced lockdowns created a unique circumstance for many people in the UK, particularly the self-employed and those who fell through the gaps of the various government support schemes. My partner is a wedding photographer, and she was luckily able to claim financial support due to the total collapse of that industry. Continuing to work was a necessity for many, and paid leave wasn’t an option; although many in the UK are lucky to have such an option, this wasn’t the case for millions of others around the world. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to see your business or position disappear as the months passed.”
What are the challenges of trying to convey the pandemic through photography?
Both professionally and personally, the pandemic has provided huge challenges. In my work, the biggest issue was accessing institutions, who only really opened their doors to the media much later into the crisis. Months were spent sending out emails and calling organisations in a bid to illustrate the heart of the story, rather than the lighter stories around the edge, such as the weekly Clap For Carers. Looking at how colleagues overseas were working inside ICUs, funeral homes and care homes, while it was such a battle to get anything in the UK, was deeply frustrating.
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images. Paramedics of the South Central Ambulance Service attend to a suspected Covid-19 positive patient on the street.
In my personal life, the pressure in the early stages of the pandemic was substantial. As Government warnings told the public to stay indoors and keep away from others, members of the media were doing all they could to get into the hotspots. Looking back now, it’s easy to be dismissive of the threat, but, at this point, knowledge on the dangers, transmission and long-term effects were scarce, so that mixed message put a lot of pressure onto me. Returning home each day, my family would stay in another room while I removed my clothes, showered, cleaned my cameras, phone, keys etc before I was able to speak with them. After months of this, it was hard to remain buoyant at times.