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How Indian Americans are Caring for Family and Friends During India’s Deadly Second Surge of Covid-19

How Indian Americans are Caring for Family and Friends During India’s Deadly Second Surge of Covid-19

Bhargavi Kulkarni
  • Many have had to rush to India, and those who are unable to go have been scouring through social media to share resources and information on availability of oxygen cylinders, plasma donors and Covid beds and support charities doing relief work on the ground. 

By now, almost all of us know at least one person who is suffering from, or has fallen prey to the deadly virus in the past few weeks, as India grapples with the most ferocious and deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. While help is arriving from all corners of the world, the situation back home seems quite grim. News channels and social media flash harrowing visuals of desperate people waiting outside over-crowded hospitals, deaths due to lack of oxygen cylinders and mass cremation sites. 

For Indian Americans who are thousands of miles away from family and friends who are suffering, there is a sense of helplessness and despair. “What kind of children are we if we cannot even go when our parents need us the most,” a friend wondered the other day on social media. 

Her sentiment is echoed by millions who are caring for their family and friends from a distance. Social media has become their primary platform, not only to keep abreast of the situation in India, but also share resources and information on availability of oxygen cylinders, plasma donors and Covid beds. Many are looking for ways to support people in their homeland through charities and with the help of elected officials.

A few have had to rush to India — to tend to a sick parent, or a death — taking Covid tests before departure, filling several forms and braving a long flight, mask et al. And for those who are unable to go, the feeling of gloom and guilt takes over, as they are constantly calling or messaging their loved ones to get an update. More often than not, the news is discouraging. And each story is more heart wrenching than the other.

This week, the State Department put out a travel advisory urging all Americans to leave India. “Access to all types of medical care is becoming severely limited in India due to the surge in COVID-19 cases,” reads the April 28 advisory. Earlier, on April 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a level 4 travel health notice for India due to the surge in COVID-19 infections in the country. “Because of the current situation in India, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to India,” the CDC stated.

Until late last month, India had mostly escaped the large-scale surge of Covid infections like those in Italy, Brazil and the United States. But India reported more than 360,000 new cases on April 28 with 3,293 deaths, breaking the daily infection record for the sixth day in a row and t, news reports speculate that is likely “a vast undercount.” More than 201,000 people have died of COVID during the pandemic.

San Jose, California Assembly member Ash Kalra lost an aunt in India to Covid.  “They couldn’t get a hospital bed, and they couldn’t get oxygen even to have at home,” he told CBS Bay Area. “Neither were available and so she passed away at home without being treated at all.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal had to make a quick trip to Chennai recently, when her parents were both diagnosed with Covid. She told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that both her parents ended up in the hospital; and her father needed oxygen. Noting that their diagnosis came before the second surge, she said, “I’m not sure if they could’ve gotten into the hospital or gotten oxygen. They are thankfully home and are recuperating; they have made it through the roughest time.” She said the fact that her parents had got the first does of the vaccine four weeks before [they were infected], actually helped to limit their symptoms. “But we saw it happening,” she said. “I  was there as the cases started ramping up. I am talking to my parents everyday, and I’m hearing just the fear that everyone has, because this is so extreme, coming so quickly.”

Sanjay Sharma had to rush to New Delhi when his father had to be hospitalized. “It wasn’t Covid, and thankfully he was out of the hospital before the second surge,” Sharma told American Kahani on the phone from Delhi. “The past ten-eleven days have been challenging,” 

Although Sharma’s father is at home and recovering, Sharma has lost four members of his extended family to Covid, and a few are currently in hospital battling the virus. “In general the hospital situation in Delhi is very bad,” he said. There’s stress, confusion and anxiety,” he said, and added: “There are challenges in getting to the hospital, there’s no bed availability, there’s an acute shortage of oxygen and even the oximeter; even cremation is not easy. People are dying in the van. It’s quite sad to see people so helpless.” 

Many Indian Americans who had to travel to India to take care of sick parents had to navigate India’s hospital systems and bureaucracy, as well as the lax attitude of the people in India. 

Another issue Sharma noticed is price gouging. “People  are literally fighting at pharmacies to procure medicines for their loved ones.” Sharma is galvanizing with his friends in the U.S. to work on “various things to help people here.” They are working closely with the Embassy of India in Washington, D.C. to get assistance.  

Some like Mehek Gangrade are “frantically seeking help” for her in-laws in Delhi who both tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Seattle Times, Mehek Gangrade secured oxygen for her 57-year-old father-in-law when his oxygen levels quickly dropped. “Once her father-in-law was taken care of, her 56-year-old mother-in-law’s health began deteriorating and they had to again work their networks for help. Six sleepless nights later the Gangrades, with the help of the local Indian community and relatives in India, secured two beds in separate hospitals,” reported the Seattle Times. 

Many Indian Americans who had to travel to India to take care of sick parents had to navigate India’s hospital systems and bureaucracy, as well as the lax attitude of the people in India. 

When Sanjana Shajil reached Mumbai last month, she was shocked to see crowds on the street at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night on her way home from the airport. “Some had masks, but most people did not use them  properly,” she said. “Almost everything looked normal to me just like pre-Covid days.” 

Her driver told her that people were “really scared during the first wave,” but loss of jobs as well as being cooped up at home for several months did take its toll on people’s economic, social and mental well-being. “Government  relaxing rules and opening up restaurants, movie theaters, places of worship and local transportation led people to let their guard down and believe the worst was over,” she said, giving an explanation for the second. “Though I was fully vaccinated I was scared,” she said. 

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As regards vaccination, Shajil noted that when she took her father to a private hospital for his first dose, there were just a handful of people getting their vaccinations on the site. “Going by the city’s population one would expect to see more people at the vaccination centers,” she noted.

However Amisha Tolat had a positive experience. The software professional from New Jersey had to rush to Mumbai in mid-April due to her parent’s health issues. “I was very concerned as I had read many articles and seen many WhatsApp videos on how people coming from overseas are harassed at the airport and forced to quarantine at hotels,” she told American Kahani from Mumbai. “As I started to prepare for the journey, I was surprised to find very clear instructions, categorized by the country of origin, on the requirements for passengers arriving at the Mumbai airport.” 

Upon arrival, she had the required negative test results for Covid and the Air Suvidha form filled. “I had absolutely no issues and could go straight home,” she said. Her flight to India was uneventful and comfortable as well. 

While she doesn’t have any “first hand experience in Covid treatment,” she did take her parents for the first shot of their vaccine. “Since they both are wheelchair patients, they were taken in directly and we did not have to wait in queues. The volunteers and employees at the centers were very helpful.”

However, Tolat is aware of the situation in Mumbai and all across the nation. “As we all know, in the last few days the Covid situation in India is critical. There is no denying the huge number of positive cases and even deaths. But slowly things are getting slightly under control. Even though the numbers floating around are very high, it is important to note that the population of India is 1.4 billion. When you compare that for example with the population of the USA, which is 350 million, the numbers are put in perspective. I feel hopeful that things will get under control soon.”

Anju Bhargava of Maryland agreed with Shajil. She was in Chennai late last year through early January, “a time when the cases were low,” and everyone thought that they had beaten the virus. Although Bhargava wore a mask whenever she went outside, she remembers seeing very few people masked. “It was a wonderful experience,” she said of her trip. But now, it’s another story. Though Bhargava is back in the States, she has extended family in India that is dealing with infections and lack of proper treatment. “Everybody is doing what they can, through their connections, and that’s the unfortunate reality.” She notes that while the rich and the upper middle class can avail their resources and contacts to get something going for them, the underprivileged and the marginalized have nowhere to go. 

But not everyone is lucky. Take the case of Ashher Aamir for example. The 36-year-old from Edison, New Jersey, who went to Delhi, in mid-April to be with his mother as she was sick and to be with family during Ramadan.As soon as he landed in a few days, he and the rest of his family fell sick as well . Over the next few days his situation kept on deteriorating. As many of you are aware, the situation in Delhi, India is bad and there are no beds, doctors, proper medication and oxygen in hospitals for the needy. The same fate Ashher had to deal with. Eventually our friend, our warrior lost the battle and took his last breath at 11.11 am on 25th April 2021.his wife and two kids (4 year old daughter and 9 month old son), as per a GoFundMe page started by Amit Joshi.

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