I Flew From America To Visit My Mother In Odisha During Covid Pandemic. The Situation Was Scary & Hospitals Were Full!

Due to covid, I could fly down from America to visit my mother after almost 2 years. It was a scary situation! But seeing my mother & the love from friends was worth it!

Due to covid, I could fly down from America to visit my mother after almost two years. It was a scary situation! But seeing my mother & the love from friends was worth it!

In the last few years, I have been visiting my mother in Odisha every year. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make that trip since December 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few months ago, I finally got to spend a few weeks with her. I decided to embark on the trip, despite the rising cases in India, and the growing risk of a third wave. I was hell-bent on seeing my 86-year-old mother, and it was the most compelling reason for me to travel to India. In Cuttack, my mother was getting anxious as well.

We children have outsourced responsibility of taking care of our parents to paid help

After a hip and femur fracture in the last six years, my mother uses a walker around the house and has full-time help.

For her, covid is frustrating – her children have not been able to visit her, and she hears depressing news on the television.

Her help, septuagenarian Prasanna also complained of the 21-month gap since my last visit. We children have outsourced our responsibility of taking care of our parents to paid help.

The journey begins…

Seventy-two hours before my flight, I had to submit a negative virus test result. I took three tests at three different testing sites to ensure that I got my results on time.

The United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Delhi was almost full. Passengers were required to wear a mask throughout the flight.

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Bhubaneswar airport was pretty quiet when my domestic flight arrived a little after 9 am. I had a ride to my beautiful home just ten minutes from the airport. After almost two years, the coconut trees are full-grown, the lush betelnut trees, and all kinds of flowers in the garden. The pipal tree next to my house was very welcoming, and the dogs on the street were cheerful. The remodelling work on the pond in front of my house will be a significant tourist attraction.

After a quick bath, I took off to meet my mother in Cuttack, about 15 miles away.

Out of the frying pan into the fire!

When I arrived in Odisha, I realized that along with covid, dengue was creating havoc in my home state. When I spoke with a friend, who was in the hospital suffering from dengue, she reprimanded me for making the trip. “Why are you here Anu,” she asked me.

Her fears were justified. In India, covid cases were rampant, even though many of them were unreported. My fears were compounded when another friend said she had got Covid from her driver, who reported positive. She too ended up going to the hospital.

I panicked. Right away, I checked United Airlines and advanced my ticket to the first available date to return home.

I was in India for less than three weeks. And I worried that if I would get sick, and end up in the hospital, it would put my mother at risk. Despite my fear, I was aware that I had come all the way to spend time with her. I was prepared for the worst and decided to take all precautions to stay the planned three weeks. I cancelled my advance flight and ended up paying a heavy penalty.

When hospitals stop being a sanctuary for the ill

The hospital situation in Odisha is dismal. One has to have ‘connections’ to get into a reputed nursing home. Public hospitals are overcrowded, and only people without financial means end up going there.

My friends had horror stories about the hospital situation. Due to lack of private room, Nalanda’s husband was put in a general ward with patients suffering from dengue and Covid. When she got Dengue and admitted herself to the same hospital, they mixed up her prescriptions with another patient. Another friend was lamenting how her brother-in-law was admitted into the hospital for Covid. The doctors mistreated him and put him in the ICU. The family received his dead body without any further explanation for his death.

I could relate to the above. In the fall of 2018, my mother fell and broke her femur bone. I had the most traumatizing experience of taking her to a public hospital and then transporting her to one of the best private hospitals. Even with our American resources, I realized the bill for the surgery and seven-day stay at the hospital was quite excessive. I wondered about the predicament of the less fortunate without any medical insurance who spend their lifelong earnings on medical care.

The shocking lack of fear of the pandemic in cities

People are very lax about wearing masks in both the cities.

One day, with the curfew on, I hired a cycle rickshaw to visit the Sarala Bhawan in Cuttack, dedicated to the 15th Century poet Sarala Das, well known for writing the Mahabharata in Odia language. Sarala Bhawan is a newly built three-storied building on Biju Pattnaik square, Cuttack.

My old-time memory of taking this human-drawn rickshaw to college in the 1970s and the 80s flashed back. The rickshaw driver, Chaitanya, had a towel as his face mask and was lovely. He took me to the building and waited to drop me back home. I was wearing a double mask. However, on the road, hardly anyone was wearing a mask. In most cases, it just dangled under the chin.

Prabhakar Swain, the founder president of this society, was very welcoming. He was wearing the mask under his nose. I quickly collected the whole ten-volume set of Mahabharata and some other related texts.  Immediately after arriving home, I changed all my clothes and took a bath to sanitize my entire body. My friend, a professor at a local university, says that even the doctors are not worried about wearing masks.

The light amidst the darkness

I had a few visitors during my visit, like my friend Archana Kumar, who came to Cuttack from Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, braving the Covid scare. It was her first flight after one and a half years. It touched me. Both of us were wearing masks throughout, stayed home, and chatted. It felt like old times.

Archana and I met at a BHU conference a few years ago and became friends. In the last several years, I always visited her and her university in Varanasi. When someone questioned her coming “all the way” to see me, she answered: “Annapurna came from the USA to Odisha. What is the big deal for me to come from Varanasi, 1200 km away?” I treasure this mutual love, sisterhood, and fellow feeling tied to my homeland.

During my time with my mother, I asked her if she missed her children. “Yes! I feel lonely without you all,” she replied. When I asked her if she wishes to be around us, she quickly responded: “No, I am happy that I have able (jogya) children. Wherever you are, be satisfied.”

Although she was happy with my visit, she complained that it was too short. “This time, you stayed for a very little time.” I am aware that any number of days I stay with her is too little. But at the same time, I am aware that her joy knows no bounds when we visit her. She is happy that we are successful and stay connected with her.

As anticipated, my time with my mother was coming to an end, and I had to begin packing for my flight back.

I drove back to the airport, past packed roadside eateries, sweet stalls, and the roads bulging with people. I felt beyond grateful for the time with my mother. And I wondered how it would be before I might be able to travel to visit her again.

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About the Author

Annapurna Pandey

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...

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