CORONAVIRUS SURGE. Ankur Chandra, 38, shows various websites he uses
to keep track of coronavirus news in India while talking about his
father’s experience with COVID-19, during an interview held last month
in New York. (AP Photo/David Martin)
From The Asian Reporter, V31, #5 (May 3, 2021), page 17.
As virus engulfs India, diaspora watches with
By Mallika Sen
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Bad news, knowing no time zones, arrives in a jarring
burst of messages, calls, and posts informing millions of members of
India’s worldwide diaspora that yet another loved one has been sickened
or lost to the coronavirus.
Sometimes it comes in a barrage of WhatsApp messages first thing in
the morning, and sometimes it lands in the middle of the night, as it
did for Mohini Gadré’s father. A 3:00am call at his San Francisco Bay
Area home let him know that his octogenarian mother — who had tested
positive in Mumbai — was too weak to say her morning prayers, setting
off a mad scramble to find her the hospital bed where she remained for
In the U.S., where half of the adult population has received at least
one COVID-19 shot, the talk has been of reopening, moving forward, and
healing. But for Indian Americans, the daily crush of dark news from "desh,"
the homeland, is a stark reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
"We’re seeing life slowly start to get back to normal in small ways,
and you’re feeling like a bit of hope — like with spring. You know that
things are improving, it’s been a year," Gadré, 27, said. "And meanwhile
there’s this tinderbox that’s been ignited in India."
The more than 4.2 million people like Gadré who make up the Indian
diaspora in the U.S., according to census estimates, have watched in
horror as the latest coronavirus surge burns through India, killing
thousands of people a day and catapulting the death toll to nearly
219,000 — the fourth-highest in the world.
In a culture that generally makes no distinctions between cousin and
sibling, biological aunt or close friend, family is family. Many Indian
Americans are wracked with guilt over emerging from more than a year of
isolation as relatives overseas struggle to find vaccines, hospital
beds, and, fatefully, their breath.
Like India itself, the diaspora is striated by religion, caste,
class, mother tongue, and other factors that continue to divide. But now
many of its members are united in frustration and helplessness with
little recourse. The State Department issued a "do not travel" advisory
for India last month, citing COVID-19, and this past Friday, the Biden
administration restricted travel from the country. That leaves families
few options except to try to arrange resources from afar and persuade
relatives to keep safe.
In the U.K. — home to about 1.4 million Indians — the government has
added India to its "red list" of countries, banning arrivals for anyone
from India except for U.K. citizens and residents. That adds to a sense
of isolation and helplessness for many who feel cut off from loved ones.
"Apart from raising funds, being generous with donations, and going
to offer prayers, there’s not much else we can do at the moment," said
Yogesh Patel, a spokesperson at one of the U.K.’s largest Hindu temples.
"We can’t go and console family and friends, everything is happening
Compounding the frustration is the struggle by many in the diaspora
to convince family and friends in India to abide by basic social
distancing and masking protocols.
The problem is twofold and cultural: A certain generational hierarchy
means elders are not inclined to heed the advice of their children,
grandchildren, or outsiders. And misinformation spreads widely through
the same social channels that are vital to coordinating help and
bridging the gap across oceans.
"My dad, he was all over the place, and I told him: ‘You’ve got to
stay at home, you’ve got to wear masks,’ but, you know, they don’t
listen," said Ankur Chandra, 38, a New York-based consultant whose
father is now recovering from COVID-19, alone in an apartment in India’s
national capital region of Gurugram.
Shivani Nath, a Manhattan-based interior designer for hotels who was
born and raised in New Delhi, offended relatives when she expressed
horror instead of congratulations at pictures of a "complete five-day,
traditional Indian Hindu wedding" in the family — no masks in sight.
"My cousin was like, ‘You Americans are so arrogant and look at your
own country and you have over 500,000 people who have died.’ And she
actually told me — she’s like, ‘Indians have herd immunity. We are born
with herd immunity,’" Nath recounted.
Her cousin later apologized, after several wedding attendees were
diagnosed with COVID-19.
Vijaya Subrahmanyam, 58, typically travels to India every six months
to see her family, including her older sister and 91-year-old mother in
Hyderabad, in the southern state of Telangana. Because of the pandemic,
she hasn’t been back in almost two years, and her summer plans to visit
were scrapped at her own mother’s advisement.
The same week that the Atlanta-based college professor received her
second dose of the vaccine, her mother and sister both tested positive
for COVID-19. Her mother had not left her home, but her sister took a
two-minute diversion to the mall to purchase a handbag after picking up
some medicine, and that’s where Subrahmanyam suspects she got infected.
"Initially, we were like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’" she said. But
Subrahmanyam realized her sister probably felt worse about it than
anyone else — and recognized that she was the one still in India, tasked
with taking care of their mother.
Some of those who feel similarly helpless are channelling their
energies into mutual aid projects.
Anand Chaturvedi, 23, is from Mumbai but now works in New York.
Coming from a tech background, he volunteered to help the same websites
he himself has used, including an open-source site that helps search for
In Seattle, Sanjay Jejurikar, 58, is leveraging his connections and
using his familiarity with India to connect people to assistance,
everyone from a 75-year-old mentor to young employees of his India-based
education technology startup.
"In India, things are a little bit chaotic, right?" said Jejurikar,
whose mother died of COVID-19 in July in India. ‘I mean, on one hand,
they’re very bureaucratic and rule-based, and all that stuff, which is
good. But on the other hand, quite a few people are left on their own
devices, like they don’t have any support."
After losing her grandmother to COVID-19 at the start of the
pandemic, 23-year-old Farheen Ali, a grad student from Texas, moved back
to Hyderabad in August to help her parents.
Having experienced a pandemic peak and a Ramadan in each country, Ali
thinks one of the biggest differences is the confidence she had that "it
won’t get that bad or the system won’t break as bad" in the U.S. She
also believes she would have been vaccinated by this point if she had
stayed in Texas.
While she doesn’t necessarily regret coming to India, the embers of
hope are dying out: "I don’t think there’s any trust in the government
or the public that they’re going to try to get this down because I still
know people that don’t want to take the vaccine because of stupid
WhatsApp messages or don’t believe that corona is still a thing, even
though people are dying at this rate."
Associated Press staff writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to
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