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Indians in US traumatized by COVID crisis in their motherland

Indian diaspora helps loved ones via social media and funding campaigns

Terrible scenes of India's burgeoning COVID-19 death toll have reached the world's vast Indian diaspora, and traumatized those unable to get home to loved ones in their time of greatest need.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Sanjeev Joshipura and his family are safe and well in Washington D.C. but they live in a state of fear. Every time the phone rings or WhatsApp pings, "We get goose-bumps."

A father of two, Joshipura, 44, migrated from Mumbai, India's financial capital, in 2000, leaving behind a large extended family. He and his wife Radhika are both naturalized U.S. citizens but they worry constantly about their COVID-19-ravaged motherland where 25 million people have been confirmed positive and over 283,000 deaths have so far been reported officially.

India's latest outbreak is the second worst in the world after the U.S.

"The entire Indian-American community is living on edge these days with terrifying images of people dying and suffering emerging from back home," said Joshipura, the executive director of Indiaspora, a non-profit organization. "Not a single day passes by without us hearing of a friend or relative testing positive for the deadly virus or dying. It's surreal."

As the second wave of COVID-19 rampages through the South Asian nation of 1.39 billion, hospitals are reeling from dire shortages of health workers, vaccines, oxygen, lifesaving drugs and beds. Mortuaries are meanwhile overflowing.

Scenes of desperate people queuing outside hospitals and cremation sites, and pleas for help on social media for oxygen cylinders, plasma donors and beds contribute to the dystopian imagery.

Many believe the surge in fatalities to be grossly under-reported by officials. India's bumbling government and underfunded health care system stand exposed -- there are only five hospital beds and 8.6 physicians per 10,000 population.

Experts blame the disaster on one of the world's lowest national health care budgets -- only 1.3% of gross domestic product compared to an overage of 7.6% in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

"We've never been so stressed during our four decades in the U.S. as we are now due to the COVID devastation in India," says Aradhana Asava, 58, who lives with her family in Plano, Texas. The IT consultant migrated to the U.S. in 1982 from India but her octogenarian parents are in Nashik, 167 km from Mumbai.

Aradhana Asava and her husband Raj Gopal have never experienced their present level of stress during their 40 years in the U.S. 

"I speak twice daily to my parents, but every time my father ends our video call, he bids us a final goodbye -- almost as if he is certain he will never be seeing us again," the mother of two told Nikkei Asia. "This is the level of fear and pessimism enveloping families back home."

Recently, Aradhana heard that her parents and her sister had contracted the virus. "We spent sleepless nights," she said. "Comforting the family over the phone was all we could do -- quite ironic, because I used to boast to my parents that should something happen, I would be there before my other India-based siblings could reach them."

Aradhana's parents have recovered, but millions have been less fortunate. Phoenix-based mechanical engineer Sandeep Khosla's 65-year-old mother died last week in Mumbai due to the lack of oxygen in the hospital. His grief was compounded by a video call in which his inconsolable father collapsed. "We are wracked by survivors' guilt -- I could not hug my mom one last time," said the anguished sociology professor.

In recent weeks, many others in the 4.2 million Indian American community have pored over WhatsApp messages all night, and huddled around screens watching images of people back home suffering and dying. They are constantly reminded that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.

India's brutal second wave comes just as things have begun to look up in the U.S. where 40% of the population has been vaccinated. The Biden administration has allowed those who have taken both vaccine shots to move around without masks in public, and the COVID-19 caseload has plummeted to its lowest point since last year. Fatalities are at their lowest since April last year.

President Joe Biden has set a July 4 goal for vaccinating 70% of Americans with at least one jab, and around 250 million jabs have already been administered. India has meanwhile only vaccinated 2% of its population according to The Lancet, a British medical journal.

Once touted as the "world's pharmacy," India is ironically the world's largest vaccine manufacturer. It has, however, been crippled by vaccine shortages, iniquitous distribution and disastrously slow vaccination rates. With on average 2 million doses a day being administered by May 12, India will take another 2.5 years to cover 75% of its population, according to one estimate.

The government's mishandling of the situation has left many in the vast Indian diaspora particularly concerned about elderly parents and relatives who depend on part-time carers and other external agencies for their daily wellbeing. All these services have been disrupted by the lockdowns, making older people the most vulnerable.

For Neela Balachandran, 32, in Denver with parents in Delhi, the situation is a turnabout. "Our parents were worried about the coronavirus situation in the U.S. last year, but now, we are holding our breath as one horror after another unfolds in India," she told Nikkei. "I call home twice each day on the landline just to ensure that my parents haven't left home as both are very outgoing."

Many expatriate Indians are trying to help. Countless individuals and organizations around the world have mobilized resources, set up help desks, and launched donation drives to send immediate aid to India. Websites containing information on COVID-19 resources available across India have mushroomed.

Joshipura's organization, Indiaspora, is a civil society network that has raised over $2.7 million. It has made direct cash transfers of $500 to the bank accounts of hundreds of underprivileged Indian families. Private COVID-19 care centers have also been set up in second and third tier cities in India as well as in villages where, doctors say, the pandemic is shifting.

Sanjeev Joshipura, pictured with his wife Radhika and their two children, is an executive director of Indiaspora, a U.S.-based civil society network that has raised over $2.7 million to try and help hundreds of impoverished Indian families through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, which represents nearly 100,000 doctors of Indian descent, has shipped over 1,000 oxygen generators and other essential medical supplies to India in the past month, according to one volunteer. An Indian-American non-profit organization, Sewa International USA, has raised nearly $4.7 million through social media for COVID-19 victims.

The outpouring of funds and assistance notwithstanding, what weighs heavily on so many is being unable to be with loved ones in their hour of greatest need to provide emotional and physical support.

Journalist Vimla Balachandran, who lives in New York, says she had planned to visit her parents in Gurugram near Delhi last year after an absence of five years. She reluctantly cancelled because of the pandemic. But after her 30-year-old cousin recently died from COVID-19, the 40-year-old decided to act. She has booked a ticket home at four times the normal price to be able to surprise her parents next week.

"All I want to do is give them the tightest, warmest hug," she said in a voice choked with emotion. "Life is looking very fragile these days."

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