Indian Americans Gutted As Kin, Friends Lose to COVID Back Home

Miles away, bereaved Indian Americans helplessly watch parents, siblings lose their battle against COVID-19.

Sitting miles away, as they lose parents, relatives, all Indian-Americans can do is watch, helplessly, in disbelief.

Abhay Bhushan recalls a heartening conversation between his uncle and aunt as they battled COVID-19 together in a critical care unit of a hospital in Delhi.

“Abha chachi texted Ajay chacha asking how he was doing, mentioning that she was using an oxymask. Ajay chacha replied that he, too, was using an oxymask, to which his wife, Abha chachi responded in jest – ‘copycat’. They had a great sense of humour between them.”

Bhushan’s aunt passed away, followed by his uncle a few days later. Their California-based daughter and Bhushan’s cousin, Ruchika Kumar wrote in a Facebook post, “Mummy was right in calling papa a copycat. He copied her even in death…”

A tech entrepreneur and community activist based in San Francisco Bay Area, Bhushan has lost seven family members in India to COVID-19. While he remains thankful for those recovering, the loss of loved ones has hit him hard.

“Ajay chachaji was wonderful and caring. He was older to me by only five years. So he was more like a friend, a yaar, than an uncle. He was always there when I visited. He made people feel welcome, and found time to come and meet them, show support and give comfort.”
Abhay Bhushan

Two Homes, Two Contrasting Realities

Thousands of miles away, Indian Americans are grieving the loss of parents, siblings, relatives and friends, watching helplessly, in disbelief.

Tragedies similar to the ones experienced by Bhushan and Kumar have become the despairing truth for Indian Americans in the last month. Many are constantly on their phones, checking in on family members and friends as horrifying updates trickle in. They are struggling to process the outright contrast between their American cities reopening with high vaccination rates, and the catastrophe ravaging their other home, India.

For Indian Americans, the disparate realities in India and the US are bewildering. Seeing their loved ones suffer and lose their battles to the virus miles away is agonising, especially when the reality in the US is upbeat.

An Ongoing Battle

Americans are looking forward to a glorious summer after losing 2020 to the virus. President Joe Biden has indicated that by 4 July, US will “begin to celebrate our independence from the virus.”

But Indian Americans are not feeling liberated, because their ordeals with COVID-19 have not ebbed.

They are organising and attending memorial meetings to celebrate friends and families they have lost in India, as they did for their loved ones who passed away in US. They suffered the ravages of the virus right through the winter of 2021 as it teared through American cities.

Bhushan fondly remembers a close relative who passed away due to COVID-19 in Dayton, Ohio.

“I knew Mukul even before he married my cousin. I remember him from my teenage years, their wedding, birth of their daughter, so many memories. He worked in Indian villages in the 1970s. Dr Mukul Chandra was a community health specialist and the medical community in US mourns his loss. He died due to lung failure after contracting COVID.”
Abhay Bhushan

The virus has not really abated for Indian Americans.

Almost every Indian American has lost a friend, family member or relative in India in the last few weeks. Every phone call or text makes them anxious. Many have spent days online searching for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds in India for their loved ones. Some have organised funds and medical supplies.

California resident Sanjiv Sahay’s brother-in-law, who was under observation at an intensive care unit of a San Francisco Bay Area hospital for a month in December 2020, lost the battle to COVID.

Silicon Valley-based tech entrepreneur Sanjiv has lost three relatives to the deadly virus in Delhi in the last few weeks.

Having witnessed the impact of COVID earlier in US and now in India, they find a glaring contrast in public health infrastructure between the two countries.
“When this wave started, in one day we had two family members dying in Delhi, and then another one. That’s when the enormity of it hit. One of them who was a retired senior government official, he couldn’t get oxygen or a hospital in time! My cousin drove him from one hospital to another. The quality of care makes a world of a difference. US set up field hospitals when cities needed it. Who would think people would die for lack of oxygen, even for a country like India. India does produce enough oxygen.”
Sanjiv Sahay

A Lack of Faith in The Situation

Indian Americans are an educated and high-income migrant community. Even though most of them have moved to the US willingly for professional opportunities, they always carry a bit of yearning for their motherland in their hearts. Watching India surrender to the virus, have left them bereaved and exasperated.

“The difference is access to life-saving health care. Here (Santa Clara county, California) the guidance was reasonably clear. Data was published, and you could trust the data. Numbers were not being underreported. In India the official figures have no bearing of reality. How do you have faith in what’s going on?” says Sanjiv Sahay.

He adds, “It is not right for me to pass judgement on the government (Indian) because I don’t live there. But I am entitled to my opinion.”


Helpless and Distanced from Family

Desis are constantly swaying between optimism in America and gloom in India. Happy and boisterous social media groups, connecting them with their loved ones in India, have turned into a harbinger of death. Laughter has been replaced by much-needed prayers.

A resident of Foster City in California, Sonia Bhanot was to be in Delhi this spring, to meet her mother and sisters. She felt confident to make the long journey after getting fully vaccinated. She has had to put her travel plans on hold given the public health situation in India.

“I haven’t met my sister after her husband passed away last year. I was hoping to visit. There are family members and close friends in Delhi who have COVID-19. Some are recovering. Hamare liye to COVID khatam hi nahi ho raha. Pehle yahan, ab wahan. I am not removing my mask, even if others do,” says Sonia.

Unwilling to Drop Off Their Masks Anytime Soon

Almost a third of states in the US do not require masks any more. But the general consensus is to continue to be cautious, and not drop their masks.

Owner of a popular salon in San Francisco’s Bay Area, Shilpi Goel is fully vaccinated. Out of caution, she continues to go for frequent COVID-19 tests and wears a mask at work.

“I will continue to wear a six-layer mask. I don’t understand why anyone would stop wearing masks when the virus is still around,” she says.

Although the rate of infections dipped in the US after the January-February 2021 winter surge, the fact that India fell prey to the second wave and is witnessing widespread devastation has left Indian Americans ill at ease.

Even as others around them are dropping masks and mingling indoors, desis are not ready to drop off their masks any time soon. Instead, they are rushing to get their children – over 12 years of age – vaccinated.

Bhushan who has relatives across the US, says they plan to meet this summer in Chicago. “Our family will meet in remembrance, to celebrate the lives of family members who we have lost this year,” he says, ruefully.

It's a long haul before Indian Americans are ready to unmask again.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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