India Covid: The agony of watching a catastrophe from afar

By Ritu Prasad & Sam Cabral

Stock image of girl on cell phone

As India’s Covid outbreak claims lives and brings chaos to the subcontinent, Indians abroad are also grappling with the emotional toll. When loved ones live half a world away, how do you help during a crisis?

With hospitals across India overwhelmed and basic resources exhausted, millions of families abroad have been forced to watch the situation in their hometowns deteriorate from afar.

These are some of their stories.

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‘It felt like a scene from a horror movie’

Samir’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, is some 13,000 miles away from Gujarat, India, where his extended family lives. The outbreak hit the city hard, Samir – whose name has been changed for the family’s privacy – says.

His wife’s uncle had just turned 60 this year, and had just moved in with their son, to help with his wife’s pregnancy. “The entire family caught Covid,” Samir says, even though they all had at least one shot of the vaccine.

The family avoided going to the hospital for as long as they could, knowing how stressed the system was. But eventually, the uncle, his wife, and pregnant daughter-in-law all needed to be admitted – and all three ended up in three different hospitals.

Samir says what happened next felt like “a scene from a horror movie”.

His wife’s uncle died at the end of April. Last Tuesday, the daughter-in-law, who was seven months pregnant and in her twenties, also passed away. He says the doctors were trying to save both mother and baby, which complicated which medications she could take.

“Living here in the US, we tried our level best to use our Indian contacts to get them access to ICU beds with ventilators, oxygen and medicines. All with varying levels of success,” he says.

He describes going from broker to broker to try and purchase Covid drugs. “We were finally about to source it from Muscat to be delivered to India, when we heard that the daughter-in-law had passed away.”

His wife’s aunt is still in intensive care, but on the mend. The entire family is “extremely traumatised”, Samir says. “This was particularly heartbreaking.”

From a distance, he and his wife continue to pray for the safety of their loved ones.

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Indians make up the single biggest diaspora population in the world, with an estimated 18 million living abroad, according to the United Nations.

There are some 4.6 million Indian Americans as of 2019, according to Census Bureau estimates, and Indian nationals are the nation’s second-largest immigrant group. Across the border, Canada is home to 700,000 Indian immigrants, and the number is on the rise.

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‘This is an emergency, this is where I need to be’

For many, the last few weeks have been an endless repetition of worst-case what-ifs.

Pooja, a 29-year-old Indian national working in Jersey City, New Jersey, was lucky enough to fly back to her hometown of Hyderabad before travel restrictions were enacted.

In mid-April, her parents and sister all came down with the virus. “I did not want to take any risks,” Pooja – whose name has been changed for this story – says. “I have heard of people who could not be there, devastating stories of the worst-case scenario, where they lost their parents and were stuck here because of travel bans.”

Pooja says she was lucky to be able to hop on a flight as soon as she received a negative test result. She adds that she “didn’t have time” to think about any of the other possible outcomes: losing her job, her visa, getting stuck abroad.

“My thing was: this is an emergency and [home] is where I need to be. If I’m stripped of my work visa then, it is what it is. I cannot do much beyond that.”

Pooja was able to care for her family over two weeks – running errands, doctor visits, cooking, cleaning and searching for medicine and hospitals when her father’s fever wouldn’t break for 10 days. Her family eventually recovered, and Pooja returned to the US just days before the Biden travel ban went into effect.

Now, in her community in Jersey City, those travel rules have added to the stress.

“Everyone who’s here on a visa, even if they want to, they cannot consider going back because of the ban. What will we do if something happens to our parents? We don’t have a choice. None of us can leave.”

And, Pooja says, for immigrants, “one part of us is always stuck back home”. Seeing friends “begging for ambulances, oxygen and healthcare” on social media from afar has been a difficult emotional burden to bear.

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Sometimes, social media can help the distance feel a little less vast.

Networks of Indian Americans on social media have been sourcing ICU beds and groceries, sharing information on outbreaks and vaccine availability, and helping to raise money through organisations big and small.

One Facebook fundraiser for oxygen supplies, started on 23 April, has raised $7.5m (£5.4m) from over 100,000 donations. A Google spreadsheet compiling fundraisers and not-for-profit groups accepting foreign donations has so much traffic, it sometimes takes a minute to even load the page.

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‘You always want to do more’

Resident physician Ruchika Talwar, 28, is part of a joint effort – with roots in Pennsylvania and New Delhi – to send oxygen to India.

“We’ve been getting phone calls like everyone else, every hour about someone who is stranded at home without oxygen or someone else who is unable to get care or someone else who died,” Talwar says.

As the situation in India rapidly worsened, Talwar and her mother linked up with her mother’s former medical school classmates on the ground in Delhi to start the oxygen drive.

It all began with one email that Talwar sent to just family and friends asking for funds – but when someone posted her message on Instagram, the fundraiser went viral. She raised $10,000 soon after.

Even now, she says, her inbox is full of thousands of inquiries. Her Venmo was quickly overloaded with donations – some big but most small.

Venmo messages

As of this week, her efforts, coupled with GoFundMe campaigns and outreach from other volunteers on the team, has brought in $90,000 in crowdsourced donations. Two hundred oxygen concentrators were sent over to five cities in India on Sunday.

Watching the crisis unfold from her home in Philadelphia has been “conflicting” in many ways, Talwar says.

As a physician, she helped care for US patients during the early virus waves of 2020. “There’s a lot of hope and release happening here in the States, but it hurts to look at home and see how people are suffering there.”

Her fiancé has lost three relatives in India’s latest surge. Several of Talwar’s cousins, uncles and aunts are sick at home, unable to get oxygen in a hospital. It’s also frustrating, she adds, seeing the excess of vaccines in the US while in India, there is such a dearth of supplies.

“It’s painful and you always wish you could do more.”

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‘My father is no more’

In neighbouring Canada, Indian immigrants face the same difficult choices. Ashwani Aggarwal works in media sales and mortgage lending, but these days, he instead works endlessly to help Indians in need.

Through the My Indians in Canada Association he co-founded with 125 other expat families, Aggarwal is currently trying to raise money to buy 100 reusable oxygen cylinders, as well as medicines and groceries, for residents of Delhi and Chandigarh.

Composite image of patient and dcotors in India

“The day before, a guy in Toronto called me to say his parents were in Chandigarh and suffering from Covid,” he recalls.

Unable to find any oxygen, the man reached out to Aggarwal for help.

“After we found [it] for him, I called him back and he said ‘my father is no more’,” says Aggarwal. “I can’t tell you what that did to my heart.”

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The growing optimism in the US offers a stark contrast to the dire situation in India. Indian families abroad have found themselves looking at a jarring split-screen: their lives in the US begin a slow return to normal as stories of lockdowns and loss in India fill their social media feeds.

Temples, cultural associations and other pillars of the Indian American community have sought to keep spirits up, with events and fundraising drives, but the disparities between the two countries remain in focus.

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‘There is power to people coming together’

This year, Nimarta Narang attended her first Zoom funeral.

“It’s just such a surreal feeling to be sitting on the opposite side of the world, seeing a funeral unfolding on your screen, seeing your family members crying, hugging each other and being there with each other. And you’re just so desperate – you’re watching from across a screen,” she pauses, and says even remembering it has her trembling.

The 26-year-old has been working in Los Angeles for two years and living in the US for the last six. When both her uncle and grand-aunt died of Covid-19 in India, travel was impossible.

Last Friday, searching for ways to help, Narang heard of an initiative by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy to send oxygen cylinders to India.

She put in $50, which a friend matched. “We thought, okay, why don’t we just try to double it over our Instagram?” One hundred dollars turned into $12,000 by Sunday morning. As of Wednesday, that number has passed $25,000 – and another anonymous donor has promised to match it.

Instagram chat shared by Narang
One of the messages sent to Narang’s co-organiser Ria Mazumdar

“I do feel helpless,” she says. “I do feel very scared.

“But putting my energy into something like this, raising funds, sharing resources, trying to engage in a more productive way, has definitely helped.”

Narang adds that though some of her American friends have not fully understood “the magnitude of the crisis, the scale of how horrific it is in India”, many have been willing to help once they learn.

For Narang, seeing people engaged with the cause is proof that fundraising efforts from abroad “are making an impact”.

“Even during a time like this, during a pandemic, when we feel so isolated and confined, there is such power to people coming together.”

Source: India Covid: The agony of watching a catastrophe from afar – BBC News

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