‘Every Time I’m Calling, Someone Has Died’: The Anguish of India’s Diaspora

LONDON – First there was a scramble to find her father a bed in the intensive care unit. Then came the price of an almost impossible-to-find therapeutic injection. And countless hours on the phone with doctors, family members and friends who deal with logistical problems.

40-year-old Anuja Vakil, who is nearly 5,000 miles and five time zones away, has been struggling for the past 12 days managing the care of her father Jatin Bhagat, who is at a hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India critical condition. She knows that he was lucky enough to be taken care of at all.

“If I pray to God now, it is for my father,” said Ms. Vakil. “He has to come back.”

Cases of coronavirus have exploded in India in the past few weeks, reaching nearly 400,000 a day, breaking all records and still rising. As they have done, the collective grief and fear in the vast Indian diaspora has been lost over the relatives or they have fought for their lives in the midst of a health system that has been marginalized. In WhatsApp chats, video calls, Facebook groups and forums, a global community has worried, mourned and organized.

According to the United Nations, around 17 million people from India were living outside their home country in 2020, and millions more have Indian heritage, making the diaspora the largest in the world. In the United States, around 4.8 million people were either born in India or reported Indian ancestry in the last census.

They watched in horror as the country has had more infections per day than any other since the pandemic began. For many, the pain came with the realization of their worst fear: when the people they love need them most, they cannot be there to help.

As Indians around the world desperately tried to help sick relatives, London has become an epicenter for Covid relief efforts from the diaspora. Faced with a seemingly impossible situation, many organize themselves, pool money to buy oxygen concentrators, connect people in need of care with doctors, and use community networks to share resources.

The aid supplies collected by the diaspora arrive in India, as do government relief from Great Britain, the USA, Germany and Australia, among others.

Ms. Vakil tried to focus on these positive aspects. Although being apart from family has been difficult, her local Indian community in London has proven a lifeline, and she speaks to a friend in New York whose own father is uncomfortable. She tries to lift her father’s spirits with daily video calls, and his doctors hope he can do it.

Her father cannot speak because of the pressure-controlled ventilation that makes it easier for him to breathe, but nods in response when she speaks. She can see the little wrinkles spreading around his eyes as she manages to make him smile.

“My sister said, ‘Please come, please come. ‘But she doesn’t understand the difficulty,’ added Ms. Vakil.

India was added to the UK red list last week, ending almost all direct flights and putting an expensive and mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine on the few citizens and residents who have access. And on Friday, the United States said it would restrict travel from India starting next week.

The restrictions, high costs, work obligations and fear of contracting the virus have all resulted in the fact that many can no longer travel. As coronavirus cases continue to rise, many described painful conversations with friends and relatives at home and a sense of helplessness as they watched the horrors unfold in half a world.

Jyoti Minocha, a writer and substitute teacher who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, is concerned about her mother and sister in New Delhi. She recently lost a cousin and said she calls her family on a daily basis. “The streets are quiet, ghostly, says my sister,” she wrote in a text message. “The only sound you hear is ambulance sirens.”

“I speak to my mother almost every day,” said Ansh Sachdeva, 23, a student at Bolton University in northwest England. “But every time I call someone has died. Someone has Covid. “

He says that no house has been left untouched on the street in New Delhi where his parents live. He traveled home in November to take care of his parents and grandfather who contracted the virus. But now he’s worried they might get sick again, and the new travel restrictions would make it impossible for him to get there.

In January, his mother had worried he might return to the UK when a troubling second wave of the virus hit the UK. “For them,” he said of the general perception in India earlier this year, “Covid was over.”

But it wasn’t over yet. Many Indians overseas watched with discomfort as the government allowed cricket games in crowded stadiums, mass election rallies, and a major religious festival called the Kumbh Mela, which attracted millions in a city. In the meantime, the number of cases began to grow exponentially.

In the UK, home to a vibrant and diverse community of people with roots in India, the pain is palpable. At a neighborhood store in Harrow, a north-west London parish with a large Indian population, two workers said they had lost a brother in the past week.

The cultural relations between the two countries are profound. Britain’s large Indian diaspora is estimated to be more than 1.5 million people – the country’s largest ethnic minority. For many, the loss, fear, or sadness of family members getting sick in the past few weeks is exacerbating what is already a difficult year, especially as the UK emerges from lockdown and hopes to wipe out the virus.

Harmeet Gill, 31, was born and raised in London. However, his parents are from the northern Punjab state of the Indians.

“It’s kind of a double punch,” he said, noting that the Indian community in Britain was among the ethnic minorities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “We went through it here and thought, ‘Well, at least India was protected. ‘They were doing reasonably well. “

But it didn’t take long and his uncle died of the corona virus on Monday. His aunt was hospitalized on Thursday. In pre-pandemic times, his family would all have traveled to India to mourn his uncle, a patriarch of a closely related Sikh family.

“It’s just the sheer kind of helplessness,” he said, adding that along with the shock and grief there is growing anger over government mismanagement. “You know it didn’t have to happen the way it did.”

Mr Gill, who volunteers at a Sikh temple in the Southall neighborhood of London, has seen the effects of the outbreak in India on his community. ”

The temple was a center of relief in the UK during the outbreak, providing thousands of meals a week. Members are now looking for ways to help at home.

Indian doctors living overseas have also provided medical expertise and advice to dozens of friends and family members. Many get up early to read dozens of messages asking for help, and some even offer video consultations.

Rajesh Hembrom, 43, originally from Bhagalpur in the Indian state of Bihar, has lived and worked as a doctor in Great Britain since 2003. His wife is also a frontline health worker, and when cases increased in England early last year, his older father and older sisters were concerned.

“They were pretty worried and there was a certain amount of calm at home,” he said, “until it all broke out.”

But then the momentum shifted, and as the number of family members and close friends increased, they started sending messages, desperately looking for help. Right now he’s advising around 30 people over the phone, he said, to manage their care or to provide any insights he can. Some of the people he tried to help have died.

“There are no real hotlines to call so they’ll cling to straws and know me, so obviously they’re contacting me,” he said.

A childhood friend is treated at a hospital in Mumbai, and family members are on a daily basis with Dr. Hembroma in contact. He fears his friend won’t make it.

“We see a lot of death in our medical work,” he said. “But I’ve never seen so many people around me who are already dead or who may die. In a way, it’s almost like a war zone with no visible enemy. “