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NRI Women Helplessly Agonize Over Loved Ones At Home Facing The COVID Tsunami

Posted: May 2, 2021
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How are we NRIs dealing with the COVID crisis our loved ones in India are being engulfed by? Praying helplessly, and hoping that our families are spared…

As anyone who has left home knows, distance comes with a burden. One that can look like privilege from distance: we don’t have to be the ones dealing with the day-to-day decisions and tasks. Often, that is a respite or can be considered a respite by bystanders. However, in reality, it comes with a myriad of distress – from guilt to helplessness and constant worry of not knowing.

But never has the curse of this distress been stronger than now. COVID is ravaging India. Social media and chat groups are bursting with calls for hospital beds and oxygen. A constant flood of relatives, friends, contacts falling sick – and often, dying. News channels flashing clips with pyres burning and white sheet wrapped bodies on top of cars.

And us, still in shock, stuck in panic outside the frame. Like watching a fast approaching tsunami wave drowning your loved ones while you stand safely on a mountain.

Being far from families is a given for those moving away

Ever since I moved to the US – now over fifteen years prior – and from even before that (since I left home to study in Kanpur), I have been plagued by guilt for not being able to be by the side of my family. Just as constant as the selfish sadness of missing all the happy moments – from weddings to meals together – but stronger, has been the sadness of missing the despondent ones. Of missing deaths. Of not being there in sickness. Of not being there to handle crises – small to big.

I have thought, almost daily, if my sister who stays in Bangalore and is the one tasked with flying to Kolkata as many times as needed, feels overburdened to be the only caregiver. But if I thought I knew what this helplessness is and had become complacent with this reality as a small price to pay for an otherwise privileged life – I was proved wrong this last week like I was never before.

The horror of an uncontrolled pandemic back home as we watch

What I and the diaspora population have been going through is not just our usual worry and sadness for our families back home. It is the horror of seeing the crash of an entire nation from far away. We have survivor’s guilt, even though we are not really surviving this.

Of course, our plight, if it can be even called so given what is going on with those on the ground, pales in comparison. But this is not about whose plight is bigger. This is a mere recording of as many human experiences as possible – so that when we come out of this, scathed –  we remember.

When my parents caught the virus

My personal story of COVID had been fairly fortunate – until Dec 2020. That is when my parents, after spending eight months here in the US with us went back to Kolkata, and caught COVID.

While they were here, we had the months in strict quarantine – work from home, school from home, groceries delivered, no workers, not meeting anyone – out of worry for my father’s health. They had returned just a month before, taking advantage of the lowering of numbers here in the US (the dip between the two US waves, October 2020). As expected, my father – a diabetic, above 65, ex-smoker – fell severely ill.

My sister in India took the full load

He battled for his life in ICU in Kolkata for 21 days. My mother needed to be hospitalized too at the same time. My sister, traveling to Kolkata from Bangalore, a severe asthmatic herself, shuffled in panic between the hospital wards.

The only time we could speak to my father was between 3-4 am US time, but that too wasn’t guaranteed as it had to be through the hospital’s video chat (Whatsapp on a phone that they took from one patient to another). Every night I woke up, dialing the numbers again and again. I got to speak to my father only once during this entire time.

Multiple times the head of the COVID ward at AMRI  – who had to be called at 1 am IST as they were working round the clock – said that they couldn’t tell if he’d make it. Multiple times we almost drove to California, which by then was in lockdown again, in hopes of flying out.

Recovering, exhausted, hoping for better times…

They slowly recovered, but even after they came home, my father’s oxygen kept fluctuating, so constant night monitoring was needed and my mother’s ECGs showed to be abnormal. My sister, exhausted and somehow still untouched by COVID, tended to their recovery – week after week – month after month. We thought about how bad we had it. We didn’t know what was to come.

April eleventh, 2021, on my father’s birthday, my sister nervously asked if they could go out to eat (I am the paranoid one in the family – yelling at them at the mere mention of them venturing out). She was tired she said, of hearing of hospitals and sickness, of being stuck at home. Parents were recovering at last and had had the first shot. I could sense her frustration in her voice, and in my parents. Everyone was stepping out after all…things were all right. One more month please, I pleaded with them. Until their second shot was done. Everything will be alright soon, just a little bit more patience… I nervously assured them as they spoke of the election rallies in Bengal and Kumbh…

Until all hell broke loose

We know what happened next. Early last week, my parents tried to get their second dose of vaccine in Kolkata amidst the hell that had already broken loose. My father fainted there, exhausted from standing in the line in the heat, devastated that they run out of vaccine.

By then, on the Whatsapp groups, affluent and influential friends were asking, begging, for help. For information on hospital beds. Relatives sharing news of someone they knew dying. Someone I know, one after another, in ICU. Some dead.

People were dying everywhere

In a matter of days. A friend here suddenly lost his father in India, from news of COVID to death it was a matter of mere days. They didn’t have the luxury like I did to contemplate whether to fly home or not.

One Facebook thread in a Book Club group out of Gurgaon had a woman posting about losing both her in-laws in a matter of hours, and both her parents critical. This, within 2 days, became the norm. Whole families falling sick, multiple members perishing at once.

What should we do? What can we do? How can this be true?

Frantic efforts started here, multiple groups trying to raise money for oxygen concentrators (on the first few days we couldn’t even figure if that’s the right thing to do), online searches for NGOs who could be contacted for on-ground distribution, tweeting for the lifting of the export ban on vaccine raw materials – all so futile…too little…too late…

As I write this, my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) has COVID, as does his brother; and a close cousin in Chandigarh is just released from ICU. Our mornings are spent worrying. What if my sister catches COVID? She has asthma. What if my father, left with lung damage from the last bout, falls sick again? The last time – no matter how nightmarish it had seemed – was a blessing in retrospect. My parents got the best in class treatments. We found hospital beds. We could get oxygen tanks. What about this time?

Questions, and no answers

Chandrani Banerjee, an educator and an active member of the diaspora Bengali organizations, has been working to fund the efforts of SEWA. “Bengali Association is trying to do a lot but we don’t know if it will help,” she says, with panic in her voice. Her parents are in Kolkata, both of them in quite frail. “What should we do? I can’t let them have house helps come in anymore, but how will they manage?”

Although we have no option of bringing my parents out of India into the US given their current health, for some, it is an option they had thought of. A guilty option, plagued with the burden of abandoning others. Abandoning the nation. “We have done that already in a way. How is this any different?” I ask Harini Vora, a medical professional here who was involved in the mass vaccinations here in the US, and has been trying hard to bring both her parents and her in-laws here. Her in-laws stay alone, getting them vaccinated and to the US was their first priority. “We are so scared. We don’t have a choice,” she said with guilt in her voice.

Rohini Kothari, a supply chain professional, had booked tickets for her parents to be here in June. “Every day I get calls, one cousin, another…my friends – they are not able to save…logon ko bacha nahin pa rahe hain.” There’s anger in her voice. Her parents, like mine, were both down with COVID in December and her father had been critical too. At that time, she was trying to fly there. This time, she was trying to get them out. “I am bringing them here. I don’t care how,” she had said.

But neither of them will be able to now, because what they were fearing just happened with US closing it’s borders to all from India except citizen or green card holders.

Another friend called from California. Their family stays together and her brother has COVID.

“What should we do? How many days did it take for your parents to fall really sick after they started showing symptoms?” She is trying hard to understand how much leeway will they get before things at home get bad. And if that will be enough time for the crises all around to subside? “Should we buy an oxygen cylinder and keep at home?”

I remind her that with her brother sick, even if that was a possible and reasonable option, there’s no one to make that happen. I told her I will check on my India Whatsapp groups. I know I won’t. I can’t. Because every one of them there are drowning, themselves, already.

Effort being made by NRIs to get help to India

I reach out to contacts I know to be prolific social activists and the efforts IIT and other alumnus groups are coordinating. “Donating and sharing information is the best you can do now.” They all advise.

“It’s a manmade crisis,” Ruia Prasad, a social worker here whose family in UP has multiple members affected, says with anger. There is anger – a lot of it. But unlike in India, most here can’t decide who to be angry at.

Many, including myself, are streaming NDTV or other live channels nonstop – between work meetings, mornings, evenings, nights. Maybe tomorrow, things will get better. A little better.

What we watched happen in India – with trepidation in our heart as the rallies and Kumbh went on followed in close succession by the dance of death – reminds me of an article I had read on COVID last April. New York City was being decimated, bodies lining outside morgues – huge trucks lining up outside of Queens hospitals – desperate bargaining for ventilators. The article referred to, among other things, to how St. Patrick Day parties had continued in the city bars as death was creeping in. Those who forget history are bound to repeat it. They say.

Image source: a still form the film The Namesake

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