LOS ANGELES – Bad news unaware of time zones comes in a deluge of messages, calls, and posts informing millions of members of India’s global diaspora that another loved one has fallen ill or been lost to the coronavirus.
Sometimes it comes first in the morning in a flood of WhatsApp messages, and sometimes it ends up in the middle of the night, as happened with Mohini Gadré’s father. A call at his home in the San Francisco Bay Area at 3 a.m. let him know that his octagonal mother, who tested positive in Mumbai, was too weak to say her morning prayers for days.
In the US, where half of the adult population received at least one COVID-19 shot, it was about reopening, progress and healing. But for Indian Americans, the daily rush of dark news from their homeland “desh” is a clear reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
“We see life slowly returning to normal in a small way, and you feel like a little bit of hope – like spring. You know things are getting better, it’s been a year,” said 27-year-old Gadré . “And now there is this tinder box that was ignited in India.”
The more than 4.2 million people like Gadré that make up the Indian diaspora in the US have watched in horror, according to census estimates, as the recent surge in coronavirus burns through India, killing thousands of people every day and the death toll catapulted to more than 200,000 – the fourth tallest in the world.
In a culture that generally makes no distinction between cousin and sibling, biological aunt, or close friend, family is family. Guilt plagued many Indian Americans for having emerged from more than a year of isolation as relatives overseas struggling to find vaccines, hospital beds, and fateful breaths.
Like India itself, the Diaspora is shaped by religion, caste, class, mother tongue and other factors that continue to divide. But now many of its members are united in frustration and helplessness with little recourse. The US State Department has issued a notice for India, citing COVID-19, stating that you are not allowed to travel to. This leaves families with few options other than trying to remotely arrange resources and convince relatives to get themselves to safety.
In Great Britain – home to around 1.4 million Indians – the government has put India on the “Red List” of countries and banned the arrival of anyone from India other than citizens and residents of Great Britain. This adds to a sense of isolation and helplessness for many who feel cut off from loved ones.
“Aside from collecting donations, being generous with donations and offering prayers, there is not much else we can do right now,” said Yogesh Patel, a spokesman for one of the UK’s largest Hindu temples. “We can’t comfort family and friends, everything happens online.”
The frustration is compounded by the struggle of many in the diaspora to persuade family and friends in India to adhere to basic social distancing and masking protocols.
The problem is twofold and cultural: a particular generation hierarchy means that elders are unwilling to take the advice of their children, grandchildren, or outsiders. And misinformation spreads widespread through the same social channels that are vital to coordinating aid and bridging the ocean divide.
“My dad, he’s been everywhere and I told him, ‘You have to stay home, you have to wear masks,’ but they don’t listen,” said Ankur Chandra, 38, a New York-based counselor whose father is now from COVID-19 recovered, alone in an apartment in the Indian capital region of Gurugram.
Shivani Nath, a Manhattan-based hotel interior designer who was born and raised in New Delhi, insulted relatives when she expressed horror rather than congratulating herself on pictures of a “full five-day traditional Indian Hindu wedding” in the family – no masks insight.
“My cousin said,” You Americans are so arrogant looking at your own country and you have over 500,000 people who have died. “And she actually said to me – she says,” Indians have herd immunity. We are born with herd immunity, ”Nath said.
Her cousin later apologized after several wedding attendees were diagnosed with COVID-19.
Vijaya Subrahmanyam, 58, usually travels to India every six months to visit her family, including her older sister and 91-year-old mother, in Hyderabad, in the southern state of Telangana. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been back in nearly two years and her summer plans to visit have been abandoned on the advice of her own mother.
The same week that the Atlanta-based college professor received her second dose of the vaccine, her mother and sister both tested positive for COVID-19. Her mother had not left home, but her sister made a two-minute detour to the mall to buy a handbag after picking up medication. There Subrahmanyam suspects that she was infected.
“At first we said,” What’s wrong with you? “She said. But Subrahmanyam realized that her sister was probably feeling worse than everyone else – and realized that she was the one who was still in India and had the job of looking after her mother.
Some of those who feel similarly helpless turn their energies into mutual aid projects.
Anand Chaturvedi, 23, is from Mumbai and now works in New York. He has a technical background and has volunteered to help the same websites he used himself, including an open source website that helps find virus-related resources.
In Seattle, 58-year-old Sanjay Jejurikar leverages his connections and uses his familiarity with India to connect people with support, from a 75-year-old mentor to youngsters at his India-based educational technology startup.
“Things are a bit chaotic in India, aren’t they?” said Jejurikar, whose mother died of COVID-19 in India in July. “I mean, on the one hand, they are very bureaucratic and rule-based and all that stuff that is good. On the other hand, some people stay on their own devices like they have no support.”
After losing her grandmother to COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, 23-year-old Farheen Ali, a Texas student, moved back to Hyderabad to help her parents in August.
After experiencing a pandemic climax and Ramadan in every country, Ali believes one of the biggest differences is confidence that “it won’t get that bad or the system won’t get that bad” in the US. She also believes it would have been vaccinated at this point if she had stayed in Texas.
Though she doesn’t necessarily regret coming to India, the glimmers of hope are dying: “I don’t think there is any confidence in the government or the public that they will try to eliminate this because I still know people who refusing to take the vaccine because of stupid WhatsApp messages or not believing corona is still a thing, even though people are dying at this rate. “