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India's Covid Crisis

By Poornima Narayanan, Abha Iyengar, Maitreyee B Chowdhury, Tinaz Pavri, Barkha Kumari, Amit Newton, Apurva Ghelani, Gitanjali Chak, and Shoba Narayan Email By Poornima Narayanan, Abha Iyengar, Maitreyee B Chowdhury, Tinaz Pavri, Barkha Kumari, Amit Newton, Apurva Ghelani, Gitanjali Chak, and Shoba Narayan
June 2021
India's Covid Crisis

Writers reflect as a devastated nation copes with the pandemic’s second wave

The Smell of Death

By POORNIMA NARAYANAN

The early morning air is faintly acrid today. Wood smoke is common in Delhi winters when the poor and homeless across the city warm themselves around small roadside bonfires. But now it’s peak summer, so whence the smoke? A recently famous image flashes in my memory, and I stop in my tracks … could this be emitting from the funeral pyres of the people dying from the coronavirus? My mind swiftly deflects, in self-defense perhaps, to thoughts of what to make for breakfast. Idlis or omelets?

But there’s no getting away from Covid-19 for long. From extra obituary pages in the newspapers to incessant WhatsApp messages requesting for plasma or offering (usually dead) links to government/oxygen/ hospital helplines, the virus rips through our consciousness, leaving in its wake a grey trail. Of sorrow for the dead and suffering, fear for oneself, and numbness for the future.

CoverStory_1_06_21.jpgWas it only last year that we stood in our balconies and banged thalis (in retrospect, how daft was that)? Was it only a few weeks back that we had gingerly stepped out—in masks, of course—for a birthday celebration at a neighborhood café? Unthinkable now. Today, every one of us is snagged in a Covid-19 web of family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Safe, sick or dead: we are all connected.

My genial, middle-aged housepainter is gone, dead within days of the lockdown. The owner of my daughter’s school tuition center—a smart, enterprising, 30-something—is gone too, after a day on ventilator. A lanky, smiling neighbor, also gone. News trickles in of yet another neighbor, a 93-year-old, dying alone in the hospital. My daughter reports another death—her schoolmate’s father, a judge. In her eyes, there’s unspoken fear. What happens if her parents . . . ?

(Photo: Aditya Roy)

And then there are the stories of heart wrenching struggle. A fellow resident of our apartments complex waited for four agonizing days to land a hospital bed in a distant suburb. Another breathless neighbor was rushed by ambulance to a hospital 50 km away in neighboring Haryana—because there are no oxygen beds in Delhi for love or money. She recovered but her 70-plus mother afflicted with comorbidities was also admitted days later in the same hospital.

I am saying a brief prayer for the family when my daughter rushes in. Her friend’s Covid-positive mother is critical but they can’t find oxygen or hospital bed. Can we lend our oxygen concentrator for emergency use? Said concentrator is bundled into our car and swiftly rushed over. The machine we’d acquired serendipitously last year, and briefly used, is now the hottest buy in town, selling for nearly double its price of 50,000 rupees—if you can find one, that is.

Meanwhile, the young and suddenly vulnerable hunt for vaccination slots. The mobiles of my two millennials ping with alerts for vaccination dates in nearby centers. But the slots fill up in microseconds.

Oddly, not everyone wants the magic bullet. When I query our trash collector about his reluctance, he says their mohalla (neighborhood), in a densely populated urban village, is completely Covid-free. Is the popular India’s-poor-have-more-immunity-from-disease myth for real? Later I read on a website that many underprivileged communities believe the vaccine can cause impotence. Better to risk the virus than that?

Calls come in from Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru and messages from New York, San Diego, Singapore. Friends and family, anxious and in disbelief. Are you guys alright? What’s it like in Delhi? How did it go crazy so suddenly? Is it true—no hospitals, ICUs, oxygen, medicines? Yes, I say, for the umpteenth time. It’s real, not fake news. But I’m vaccinated and maybe, safe. For now. And then, I’m out of words and thought. There’s nothing more to say without drowning in Covid-ridden clichés.


Poornima Narayanan is a Delhi-based freelance copy editor and writer. Her interests include films, culinary experiments and travel.

 

“I come to the terrace to escape the walls”

By ABHA IYENGAR

CoverStory_10_06_21.jpeg“I come to the terrace to escape the walls,” a poet, Arti Jain, reflected in one of her poems. Caught within the four walls, we live like frightened rabbits, hoping the wolf called Covid-19 won’t tear our walls down and enter our homes and bodies, even as the cremation ghats burn.

Families have been completely annihilated due to the virus. In our housing complex, six people have passed away since the beginning of May, and the month has just begun. One of them was a young boy. His mother died a few days before him.

On May 1, I received news of the death of my aunt, my father’s sister. My cousin said, her voice filled with grief and anger, “The ambulance driver demanded twenty thousand rupees for amma to be moved from one hospital to another. Then amma had to wait in the ambulance for two hours before the hospital staff got around to moving her to the ICU.” This was the third hospital my aunt had been admitted to in three days. She passed away the next morning.

Heartless exhortation is rampant, created by shortages. In Delhi, there is a scarcity of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, plasma donors, health workers, and other essential services. Last weekend, the unavailability of oxygen caused the death of 12 patients in Batra Hospital. The vaccine, too, is in short supply, even as the Government prematurely announced its availability for everyone 18 years and older.

That such a situation can happen in the 21st century in a metropolitan heavyweight like Delhi, the capital of India, seems unbelievable. But this is the ground reality.

We have been caught unprepared and are paying a huge price in the numbers who are dying every day.

I get news of the death of my 35-year-old nephew. He had been married two months ago. I can do nothing but sit at home and grieve, attend the prayer meeting on Zoom, and wonder at the surreal absurdity of it all. Even our grief has to be contained.

Rage, despair, anxiety and a sense of doom envelopes everybody. “Who is next?” is the unasked question. My 33-year-old daughter, who is spending time verifying the supply sources (many are fake) for the treatment of Covid-19 patients for an NGO, says, “I suddenly feel that my time on this planet is limited because of this pandemic. So, I am focusing on the present right now. Almost everyone I know is either sick, recovering, or has passed away. People who are my age are falling sick, going to the hospital, gasping for breath. I don’t know if tomorrow or the next month I will even be here. It’s scary. I never felt like that before.”

Through the window, I gaze at deserted streets. I watch a gulmohur tree in full bloom. A little further on, yellow amaltas flowers celebrate the month of May. In the midst of the virus blitzkrieg, I look at flowers for hope.


Abha Iyengar is an award-winning, internationally published poet and author. She is an editor and a British Council certified creative writing mentor. Iyengar has six published books to her credit, and has co-edited an anthology.

Single, Lonely and Old in the Midst of a Raging Pandemic

By MAITREYEE B CHOWDHURYCoverStory_14_06_21.jpg

I sit in my balcony, in my home in Bengaluru, surrounded by large palash, gulmohur and champa trees. Enveloped in this green cocoon, I wonder at the oxygen crisis in the country.

And yet, here we are, in 2021, a nation gasping for breath, knowing that our government is absent and that we must buy our own oxygen, organize our own life and death if (when?) the dreaded Covid virus gets us. My balcony and the windows of my home have become my lungs, they are a metaphor for the panic with which I look at the world around me, while confined to a life of house arrest. I’ve been planting house plants like a maniac, gathering around me as much oxygen as a person can possibly accumulate.

 [Top] The author, surrounded by verdant greenery, can’t fathom her loved ones dying as hospitals are in acute shortage of oxygen cylinders needed for the massive influx of Covid patients.

The sick and single is the new acronym for vulnerability. My friend Supria lives in Delhi all alone. When the second wave of pandemic hit the country, she messaged me in panic, “I am alone, burning with fever and have other Covid symptoms, but there’s no place I can get a test done. Everyone is afraid to come out to help, but my oxygen levels keep dipping. I don’t know what to do.”

Her message shocked me. When you fall ill and are alone in a city, what do you do? How do you look after yourself when there are no emergency services, no doctors, no 911, not even a single helping hand to fetch you a glass of water when you’re burning with fever?

Another friend Manoj, from Bengaluru, is a single man in his forties. His support system includes friends like me, who keep an eye out for him. Manoj tested positive for Covid last month. I messaged him, “All ok with you?” As if he was waiting for someone to ask, he replied almost immediately, “I think I’ve caught the bug. All the symptoms are similar. I’m too weak to go out for a test or even to cook for myself and my dog. I’ve been on cereal for the last two days.”

Manoj isn’t financially well off; he cannot afford a home test which would cost him more than a thousand rupees. Some of us friends helped him out but what about others, I thought. How do they cope?

My mother-in-law stays alone in Kolkata. Because of the pandemic, her house help is a no show. At 85, she is not only forced to do the entire housework but worse, is isolated in a manner that is frightening. Over the past few days, she laments not seeing her neighbors or relatives, who normally check on her from time to time. She’s not able to buy necessary foodstuff which cannot be delivered to her doorstep now, and has to manage with bare necessities. The greater concern, of course, is how she would cope and whether at all we would be able to make arrangements for hospitalization or oxygen should the need arise. While we try to console her in this crisis, we know that they are mere words for a fear that is very real.

As I write this, there is a partial lockdown in the city. I see most people in my neighborhood confined to their homes, often walking on their terraces. In the evenings, they sit together in their balconies and sometimes sing devotional songs.

The city of Bengaluru now looks like an empty shell. There is a strange overlapping silence to the row houses. From the nearby arterial ring road, which crisscrosses the lungs of the city, the sound of ambulance sirens wail every few minutes—a reminder to those still living of what might happen the minute we take each breath for granted.


Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bengaluru–based poet and writer. She has four books to her credit, teaches poetry and design at NIFT Bangalore, and is currently involved with the Academy of Motion Pictures for their Oral History Project as a translator. She can be found at https://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/

 

Backlash Against the Government

By TINAZ PAVRI

In November 2020, my sister returned to India, grateful to be able to spend a few months with relatives whom we had not been able to see since the pandemic started. Her airport Uber driver chatted easily about a range of topics, as taxi drivers all over the world tend to do. When he heard she lived in the U.S., he offered this nugget about the election loss of Donald Trump, then still fresh. He said that if half a million citizens of any country were lost to a disease, the leader had no business staying in power. He lauded the Modi government efforts, echoing the old adage that the first rule of government was to keep its people safe.

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Modi himself had offered magnanimous advice to the world at the World Economic Forum early this year when he lectured on how India’s strategy could lend lessons about contact tracing and testing of a mammoth population and containment even in the vast cities and slums.

 

[Left] Announcing victory prematurely, grossly failing to plan for the second wave, allowing gatherings like the Kumbh Mela and cricket matches with a crowd of 100,000 in a stadium, and not setting the right example by interacting in massive political rallies without a mask, are just some of the many allegations Modi is facing.

I now reflect on the second wave of ferocious horror unfolding in India, a scenario that far outweighs anything that we could have imagined. My WhatsApp school group suddenly becoming an echo chamber of fresh and unending Covid cases and deaths, this time, of young and healthy victims, rich and poor alike. Sure enough, traditional media soon followed, and the world slowly became aware of the enormous and seemingly unending heartbreak.

Mothers gasping for air being fanned outside hospitals gates because there were no beds and no oxygen. Sons and daughters developing a fever and succumbing within days. ICUs filled to the brim and unable to deliver life-saving oxygen or ventilators. People dying quietly at home or in the streets because there was no alternative. Medicines that had been touted as successes during the first wave disappearing from shelves. A collapse of the medical system.

And then, the worst horror as the deaths pile up (exponentially greater than the government-sanctioned numbers), no place to bury or cremate the bodies, no wood to light funeral pyres, no priests to chant final rites. And the terrible fear that has gripped the heart of all: who will it be next? Will it be my loved one, my friend, my neighbor, or even myself? Because all of these have already happened, to the vast majority.
A backlash is growing against the government, a government quick to call Covid success and close the chapter without any preparation for another wave. A government that took victory laps just months before the carnage unfolded.

There was no plan for stand-by hospital beds, stockpile of medications or oxygen. Even more cruel, the country that led the world in producing the Covishield vaccine seemed to have run out of vaccines for its own citizens. It was stuck with only 1.9 percent of its citizens fully vaccinated. The hubris, of course, was that vaccines had magnanimously been donated to other countries in an effort to further underline India’s “success.”

In the end, I think the mutant virus strain, its ferocity and lethality, would have been difficult to contain even with preparation, and by any country in the world. The world is reacting very slowly to the wake-up call in India, and this is to the peril of all the world’s citizens. The potential for deadly spread is imminent, and we must act with urgency. Sadly, I don’t have faith that we will.


Tinaz Pavri is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Spelman College, Atlanta. She also hosts Khabar’s ‘IndiaScope’ column.

 

Helpless. Angry. Numb. Guilty.

That, in a nutshell, is the mental health of most Indians living in the U.S. as they watch Covid-19 ravage their family, friends and the entire community.

By BARKHA KUMARI

While the pandemic situation in the U.S. is finally looking up and plans to open offices, schools and outdoor venues are rife; for Indians living in America, this is hardly the time to rejoice.

Their families and friends in India are fighting the second and most virulent wave of the novel coronavirus, which is killing roughly 125 people every hour. Death toll aside, the heart wrenching stories and visuals of people begging for hospital beds, plasma, oxygen and funeral space have broken their spirit. And they can do nothing much but watch the macabre unfold from a distance. The travel ban to India has crippled them.

That the mental health of Indian-American friends and family is hanging by a thread is palpable whenever I call them. They take long pauses. Their voice shakes. They cry, have headaches, and look a mess.

CoverStory_10_06_21.jpgClockwise from top: Antara Dalal Seal (in orange saree) with her parents and husband; Aakash Maddi’s entire family in Andhra Pradesh was afflicted with coronavirus, but they have recovered; Business journalist Rijuta Dey Bera with her brother who recently recovered from Covid-19 in India; Tapan Kashiv with his mother right before he flew to the U.S. from Delhi for studies in December 2020.

Trauma will haunt our generation collectively

Antara Dalal Seal, an HR professional living in Houston, is one of them. The 41-year-old is unable to fathom how her parents, who stay in the central Indian city of Indore, contracted Covid-19 last month. Except for grocery runs and evening walks, they were staying home. They had received the second dose of vaccine as well. When Seal heard that her otherwise fit father had already spent two weeks in the ICU without her knowing, and that her mother had just completed home quarantine, she had a panic attack. Being their only child and over 8,000 miles apart, she has spent sleepless nights since, coordinating with neighbors and friends in Indore to provide Covid care to her parents.

“At the moment, the challenge is to get hold of the supervising doctor over a call to get a daily update on my father’s health. All I get is a minute or two to talk,” Seal shares. She’s also dependent on the doctors to connect her and her mother to her father over a video call from the ICU. Seal takes a deep breath and says, “Since he is strapped to a mini ventilator, he can’t speak much. He writes down things like ‘How are you?’ on paper and shows it to us.”

Keeping her mum motivated is tough when Seal herself is hoping against hope. “My mother went to the hospital recently, and she waved at my father from the ICU window. My father’s condition hasn’t improved. I feel shattered,” Seal trails off.

Likewise, Aakash Maddi’s entire family in Guntur, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, had tested Covid-19 positive over a month ago. Fortunately, his mother and younger sister have logged out of home care, and his father has returned from the hospital.

Yet, the 28-year-old product designer working in Boston doesn’t have a moment of relief. Over calls, he learned how his grandparents went from one hospital to another to get the second dose of vaccine and that one of them is now hospitalized. And how his fully vaccinated uncle recently succumbed to the deadly
virus, gasping for oxygen and leaving behind two young daughters who had already lost their mother.

“I was planning to complete my vaccination and fly to India by June. Now I can’t because of the travel ban. I am helpless,” he begins. He is equally furious, “I don’t want to read headlines like ‘We built 60 more burial grounds.’ Instead, I want to read ‘We stopped people from dying’. My friends in India are searching for plasma donors online. It’s not their job. It is the government’s.”

Rijuta Dey Bera, based in New Jersey, shares his anger. It comes from losing her uncle in Bengaluru as he could not find an ambulance; from learning that in Chennai, her brother, along with his wife and children, had got infected; and from seeing her friend scramble for ‘the right contacts’ to save her family in Jamshedpur, also Bera’s hometown. “If I am able to talk about my trauma so dispassionately, it’s because I have gone numb,” the 33-year-old business journalist tells me.

The trauma of seeing people die outside the hospitals will haunt this generation collectively, she says. “This was an avoidable tragedy, but India has an incompetent government that let elections and Kumbh Mela happen without thinking of the consequences. People are dying undignified deaths for want of oxygen and cremation, and yet they have made an active choice to build a nice new home for the Prime Minister in New Delhi than to boost the medical infrastructure. India’s handling of the second wave is a nonstop s**tshow.”

“Donate money. Create awareness. Amplify SOS appeals. What else can we NRIs even do?” Bera vents her frustration.

I go out, but the happiness is missing

Overseas Indians whose loved ones have stayed Covid-free don’t have it easy either. Former IT project manager Neha Sharma living in Chicago is one of them. She has asked me to change her name, fearing that her criticism of the Indian government may land her parents in West Bengal in trouble.

“I feel like I am spying on my parents. I don’t let them step out,” the 32-year-old laughs. She orders groceries for them online—10 days in advance because “deliveries are taking too much time.” To be doubly prepared, she has saved the number of a local grocery store that drops essentials at the doorstep. She has shipped them general medicines already and the hunt for a good quality oximeter is on. The list of Covid relief volunteers is handy. And for every fake news floating on WhatsApp, she digs out the truth and relays it to her parents.

The only time she did not nag was when her parents went out for their second vaccine towards the end of April. Little did she know it would be so unnerving: “My parents stood in the queue for 14 hours, from five in the morning till seven in the evening. There were people ahead of them, behind them, from the hospital door to the footpath!”

Delhi boy Tapan Kashiv is checking on his family and hearing out friends who have experienced loss. “We can’t do much remotely. I have tried to verify Covid- 19 information doing rounds online but doing it from the U.S. with time zone difference and limitation on calls, it’s not easy,” says the 25-year-old, who’s studying automotive engineering in South Carolina.

Then there’s the survivor’s guilt. “We have started going out in the U.S., but I don’t post about it on social media because friends in India are stuck at home. Daily life for us here is going on for sure, but happiness is missing. There is an undertone of gloom,” he signs off.

 


Barkha Kumari is a Bengaluru–based journalist who has written for Vice, MoneyControl, FirstPost, Bangalore Mirror, The Sunday Standard Magazine, Sunday Herald and other publications.
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Expert Speak

 

Counseling psychologist and EQ practitioner Arpitha Ranganath from Bengaluru says the calls for “help” from overseas Indians have increased lately. “There is no concrete solution to cope with this tragedy. So, if you have experienced loss, I suggest you grieve. Grieve for at least six months. If you are a caregiver or a friend, offer a listening ear to such people. If you are generally anxious about India, journal your emotions at different times for at least 10 days. and you will be able to identify the trigger. If scrolling news before bedtime is triggering you, then avoid the phone,” she advises.

[Right] Mental health professional Arpitha Ranganath

 


 

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Hope and Humanity: What Binds Them
 
By AMIT NEWTON

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[​Right] Throughout the lockdowns, the author’s balcony, overlooking the thick of the city center, became his respite.

 

If there was ever a ‘heart of the city,’ I live in it. And not just any city but that of the capital of the most populous state in India. And to force a cliché down your throat, it is a city seeped in adaab (civility) and tehzeeb (culture), the land of the (truly) divine Tunde Kebabs. Yes Janaab, you are in Lucknow.

From my house, everything of necessity can be found in less than a mile—hospitals, banks, showrooms, hotels, commercial establishments, and what have you. My balcony overlooks the road—a veritable pulsating, throbbing microcosm of life in a state capital.

This preamble was to give you a lucid picture of where I stand; to use a euphemism, I “know” the road. And when ‘lockdowns’ entered our sensibilities, lives, and lexicons last year, my balcony became my respite.

I will relate three incidents to you that I experienced from that balcony through this unprecedented pandemic.

On one of those sleepless nights, it was about twenty minutes past the fourth hour. And at that hour, when bleak despair shrouded the firmaments and not a single ray of hope twinkled, that hour between sleep and wakefulness, I heard the koel call.

All these years, through spring and summer, I had heard her sing of hope, love, and joie de vivre. But that night, she sang a different song in an altogether different key.

The first few notes were like words of a young, hesitant and apprehensive girl entering a strange house, almost apologetic, “Is anybody home?” A small pause, and then the notes were repeated. Same tone, same timbre as if wondering if nobody had heard her. Another pause and then she had called out again, a little louder. And when no answer came, she called out again, yet louder. A pause and then she called again, desperation now apparent.

From then on, she called loudly and desperately, as if the foreboding had gripped her too. For well over a minute, she had called, the desperation turning to hysteria, her calls echoing in that eerie silence, bouncing off houses and shops lining the street. And then she fell silent as if the effort had drained her.

The sun’s rays had not yet broken over the horizon. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination, but I could not sleep after that. The dejection had gripped me too.

CoverStory_6_06_21.jpgFrom my balcony, I had often seen a girl pass by on a two-wheeler dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a dupatta that covered her head. I saw her at all times of the day and thought maybe she had moved into the neighborhood.

That day she stopped across the road from me. She got down from her bike and called out to a street dog. Dutifully, it came to her, and as I watched in growing wonderment, the girl inspected the dog, its coat and paws, then went to her two-wheeler to pull out a bag of what looked like pills and another cylindrical box. She returned to the dog, opened its mouth and thrust in a few pills. She then inspected the dog’s coat and sprinkled a powder from the cylindrical box. Then she let the dog go. She was ready to move on when I called out to her to stop.

I ran down to talk to her. Rashmi was a college studentand an animal lover. She said she visited various localities of the city every month and tried to treat simple injuries and infections that street dogs might have. For the serious ones, she either called the vet or took the dog to him. She did all this from her pocket money. Her rationale: human beings can at least narrate their woe to others. Who do street dogs and cats go to?

I saw her go and marveled at the spirit of service in one so young.

And then there was that couple who came up regularly in a beat-up Maruti 800 car. These were the days when the lockdown had closed all eateries that served not only the palate of humans but also satiated the hunger of street animals. The middle-aged couple would get out and holler for the dogs with open packets of biscuits to feed them. Hungry and weak, the dogs would gleefully accept the biscuits. Soon the dogs began recognizing the car. The couple no longer had to call out to them. As soon as their car would stop, the dogs would rush in, tails wagging in anticipation.

As I think back to these incidents, I feel a warm glow restoring my faith in humanity and the inherent goodness within each one of us. That spirit of service is within each one of us.

I realized I had let cynicism creep in, seeing the ever- growing ostentation and sense of personal gratification in society. A house where you built a home wasn’t enough; one needed to have a house at the ‘right address.’
A four-wheeler wasn’t enough; it had to be a foreign brand, better still if there were two from different stables. It was never a meeting of friends but a show of who you can invite to your do, what you are drinking, what you are serving, and where you got it from.

Coronavirus served as a wake-up call for those in a materialistic stupor. By and large, realization dawned that all will be left behind, and what matters is helping fellow beings.

This year, when the virus has well and truly hit India, stories of individual effort to alleviate suffering have left one awed and inspired. In my own city, a woman uses her car as a hearse to transport the dead to crematoria and burial grounds. Another runs a help group, bringing essentials to those in home isolation. Both efforts are completely self-financed without a single penny’s help from anywhere. Taking a leaf out of the Delhi gurudwaras’ book, my city gurudwaras have launched ‘oxygen langars’ for anyone who might require it.

But what lends me much hope for the future are the efforts of the young. College students, armed with the power of social media, have banded together to provide succor in these painful times. A young man, rushing to the city with his sinking sister, tweeted his condition. Another young man read the post and went halfway to meet him with an oxygen cylinder. He did not stop there. He got the young woman admission to a private hospital too. The two young men did not know each other from Adam.

To all of you who have read till this point, I would like to leave you with hope as it pours from the pen of Wajid Shaikh, a young poet from Indore:

Himmat kar, sabr kar, bikhar kar bhi sanwar jaayega
Yaqeen kar, shukr kar, waqt hai, ye guzar jaayega

(Take courage, be patient, wrecked though you may be now, you shall heal

Believe, give thanks, this is the passage of time, this too shall pass)

 


Amit Newton is a journalist with 23 years of experience working with national and international newspapers.

 

What Can You Do To Help?

Oceans apart—and with no possibility of traveling to India due to the travel ban—many of us feel wretchedly helpless. But there is a lot we can do not only to maintain our sanity but, more importantly, to help out.

By APURVA GHELANI

One of the worst nightmares for Indian–Americans in current times is having family in India struck with Covid-19. For three weeks in late April and early May, I lived this nightmare. I was one of the fortunate ones who was able to fly home to be by the side of my father who had fallen prey to the dreaded virus. But for much of the trip coming back to the States, I thought about those of you who cannot travel to India anymore. What can you as an NRI with family afflicted with| Covid do other than worrying?

I offer the following thoughts with the hope that it may help.

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[Left] The Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) has allowed gifting of oxygen concentrators to Indians, and the Indian government has also removed basic customs duty until July 2021.

[Right Top] Ship N-95 masks to loved ones in India—they need them!​

 

Ship N-95 masks and arrange oxygen concentrator shipments to your friends and family in India

Buy real N-95 masks and ship them to your loved ones in India. Currently most people in India are using the KN-95 masks because N-95 masks are just not available there. Due to the heat, it may be difficult for them to wear N-95 outdoors but they could surely wear them indoors where exposure is higher.

The Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) has allowed gifting oxygen concentrators to Indians, and the Indian government has also removed basic customs duty until July 2021. Perhaps this is a good time to gift an oxygen concentrator to a group of family and friends to use as a backup just in case need arises.

Stop watching the news

I’ll admit this may sound crazy at first. The key sources of information you have right now are the news and social media. How in the world is it a smart choice to stop watching the news? Please know that seeing images in the media of overburdened crematoriums in India are not going to help you or your loved ones. All it will do is heighten your sense of fear.

Yes, there are shortages of oxygen, Remdesivir, ICU beds etc. but how does rehashing the same problem help you in any way? Help yourself by shifting your focus from watching national news to focusing on building and preparing your plan of action.

CoverStory_15_06_21.jpgSpread hope

To find hope, find stories of survival. There are more stories of survival than deaths in India right now. Talk about your friends and family members who survived and especially talk about your friends who did wonders to help others and save someone! Share stories about local heroes. Talk about great not-for-profits doing wonderful work in your hometown.

[Top] Delhi municipal corporation worker collects waste from
quarantined homes. (Photo: Poornima Narayanan)

Challenge your comfort zone and reach out.

If you are introverted or have otherwise not kept in touch with old friends or distant family, now is the time to break through that shell and reach out. You cannot build goodwill overnight, but initiatives to reach out and connect will be appreciated, now more than ever. It could be just a simple phone call to see how they are doing.

Emotional support

Supporting your family emotionally is just as important as supporting them logistically. To some Indians, NRIs may seem like “know it all” experts. But you are not in India; you don’t know exactly what’s happening at regional levels. Don’t spread the panic within your own family with your expert opinion on Zinc or vitamin C. Instead, tell a joke. They need respite, hope, and encouragement more than our gyan from thousands of miles away.

Change the narrative

Indians, at this time, do not need the world’s pity— they need the world’s understanding and support. Sipping red wine on your comfortable couch and sharing your wisdom about what the country should do is the last thing India needs from you as an NRI.

Respect India and Indians for their resilience. They need you as a friend that respects and supports, not a friend that judges in times of need.

Also, discourage the use of the description “Indian variant.” In the name of country, people see color and race, and the last thing we want is another hate campaign in the U.S. targeting Indians.

Don’t get political

So you feel angry at the politicians and why they allowed the Kumbh Mela and political rallies? Understandable. But your political smarts and social media posts will not save any lives What is done is done, so you can either keep expressing anger or productively shift your focus for now to help save lives and prepare your plan.

Protect yourself

A lesson learnt from the new B.1.617 variant is that letting your guard down isn’t a great idea. Get yourself and your family vaccinated. What happened in India can happen anywhere and is already happening elsewhere. The variant spreads much faster so mask up even if your local government does not ask you to do so.

Fly family out before the third wave

India is already talking about a third wave eventually. So if travel opens up, perhaps a good option is to get your family in India vaccinated and fly them to be with you if that’s feasible. Many families have already bought tickets in advance for September preempting that perhaps the travel ban may open by then.

Pray and donate

Spread good vibes and pray for our motherland. This is a wartime situation that our country is in. Donate, but not just your standard comfortable amounts. Donate an amount that may pinch you a bit—it is truly a time to stretch out, reach out, and help.


Apurva Ghelani is the founder of Winning Feathers (winningfeathers.com), a leading soft skills edtech portal for kids. He has been a tech executive for the past 20 years at Fiserv, VeriSign and other Fortune 500 companies.

Life in the Time of Corona

By G​ITANJALI C​HAK

The fact that I consider myself blessed to be alive and writing this piece is truly reflective of the current global crisis.It’s been over a year and in this time, we have been walking the tight rope between feelings of hope and despair, between keeping the smile on our faces and letting it drop in the face of utter helplessness. It hasn’t been easy to smile in the face of impending doom which threatens to blow up in our faces any minute. But then, has this virus left you with a choice other than accepting the enormity of the situation and fighting it?

The lockdown that was imposed in India in March last year was the turning point in all our lives, I think. But for us as a family, it came even before that when my husband announced with all his sagely wisdom, “The Spanish Flu had lasted for 2 years and two months . . . this is going to be no different.”He was that precise!And mind you, the virus had just entered our borders.The announcement of the national lockdown only reinforced his dire prediction.The immediate task was to stock up on essentials, food, etc. But that was hardly a problem, the real challenge lay in protecting oneself against the galloping infection, and keeping oneself and others in the family happy and cheerful—or at least pretending to be—when all you really wanted to do was to let out a cry of anguish.

So how did we manage? Well, my foodie daughter, who had just got admission in an engineering institute and still had some months left before her online classes started, was clear: she would spend her time indoors,cooking and baking exotic stuff (she made sure she gave the dishes a healthy tweak). Some of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me too as I tried to hone my culinary skills with immunity boosters like ginger, garlic and giloy. In all this, my husband was a happy man, his taste buds satiated like never before!

The lockdown thankfully did not disrupt our work patterns as my husband and I have been a ‘work from home’ couple since the last 10 years or so. But I certainly had not bargained for having my other half in the house 24 by 7! Now, that’s one huge challenge as any woman would vouch for! He offered to help with the household chores, but I sweetly told him I would manage. What I didn’t tell him was that I needed some time just to be with myself, even if it was spent alone in the kitchen!

On the brighter side, the sheer novelty of the lockdown experience made us adept at gainfully utilizing our time. Breathing exercises became a part of our morning ritual, we played word games in the evening, and I even took out time to translate a Hindi poem written by a family friend,into English.Sounds of music wafted through our home more than ever now—anything to keep stress at bay.

More significantly, lessons learnt during the lockdown will help us forever. We were grateful for having a roof over our heads and food to keep our body and soul together. We learnt to take nothing for granted and to be content in less.

Meanwhile, the Coronavirus cases peaked around September after which they began to decline, and the New Year dawned amidst the hope that the worst was behind us. The country heaved a collective sigh of relief. But how were we to know that this was just the lull before the storm—the tsunami was waiting to be unleashed. And when it came, it caught us all off guard.

April onwards, it’s been a nightmare for crores of people in this country, not just for those in the pernicious grip of the deadly virus and their families.For those of us lucky to be waking up to a new day, it is only to realize the brutality of yet another day. We are more locked up now than ever before.

Personally speaking, tragedy hit closer home when a former colleague in journalism, a wonderful sprightly lady, breathed her last. Rather, she was unable to breathe. The thought that Tavishi died gasping for air, is difficult to come to terms with.

Still, hope springs eternal in the human breast. As they say, this too shall pass.


Gitanjali Chak is a journalist based in Lucknow, India. She also hosts Khabar's Bollywood column.

 

Coverstory_Second_02_06.jpgSecond Wave Hits India Hard

By S​HOBA N​ARAYAN

On April 1, 2021, the United States and India were tied in a morbid race. They each had 65,000 Covid-19 positive cases, give or take a few hundred. On April 2, India overtook the U.S. and from then on, the graph lines diverged. Today, India has become the poster child of what not to do in the face of a pandemic.

Here in Bangalore, the messages come short and fast, without preamble or politeness.

“My sister is in ICU. Need Remdesivir. Not able to get through to the government site. Do you know anyone that can help?”

“My nephew, Ved, needs plasma. If you have had Covid, please consider donating.”

“My brother passed away. I need a slot in the crematorium. Checking if you know someone.”

ICU beds, oxygen, plasma, medicines, and crematorium slots. All are in short supply, and this is for the educated middle- and upper-middle-class of India, who stay indoors these days and are hooked to Zoom and WhatsApp. The urban and rural poor experience this in manifold measure. How did India get to this sorry state?

We live in the age of the coronavirus. Second and third waves are a textbook case of every pandemic. The Indian government ignored this rudimentary fact. Instead of preparing, it presumptuously, and falsely, claimed that it had vanquished the virus. Instead of gathering and distributing vaccines centrally, India practiced vaccine diplomacy by sending vaccine to neighboring countries without serving its own citizens. In early March, the government’s own Covid committee warned the government about the second wave.

Busy with election rallies in West Bengal, Tamilnadu and Kerala, the central government passed the buck to the states leaving each state scrambling and fighting against each other for vaccine allocations. What should have been a coordinated consistent and centralized effort instead became a chaotic carnival that has made India the laughingstock of the world.

In the middle of it all came the Kumbh Mela. It wasn’t even supposed to happen this year. However, when the religious mahants or heads of the various akharas or religious orders approached Modi with the request—or arm-twisting—that the gathering should be moved forward this year for astrological reasons, he capitulated, leading many to snicker that Indians cared more about their next life than they did this one.

After this superspreader event, instead of hunkering down and creating strategic and tactical plans of how to tackle the rising infections and deaths, Modi and Shah chose to campaign for the Bengal elections, creating further superspreader events, gatherings and rallies. What is perhaps galling for this government is that, in spite of everything they did, the BJP lost in West Bengal.

Every step was a misstep. Instead of using its political capital and clear majority to do what it was elected to do, this government focused its energies on winning more elections. As one journalist said, “I have never seen such an insecure government, especially one that won a clear majority.”

So, what next? Citizens are angry. There are, for the first time, calls for Modi and Shah to resign. Others go a step further and call their actions==or inactions—crimes against humanity. For now, though, India has no alternative. There is no national party that can mount a credible opposition to the BJP. Instead, regional parties thrive such as the ones in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamilnadu.

Even today, there are calls for information and transparency. Where did the medical supplies that the US send go? How are they routed and distributed? How much money has the “PM Cares” fund collected? Where is the money going? Most urgently of all, what is the government’s plan for vaccinating its people? Answers are absent or shrouded in secrecy.

The institutions that are supposed to keep checks and balances on executive power have been ousted, eroded or turned into lapdogs. Most egregious are India’s supreme court and the election commission, both of which have been brought to heel.

What then? Will there be a time when the tide will begin turning against the BJP? Ousting them from power is a long way off. But perhaps they will return India to the democracy it once was. Perhaps they will realize that they cannot trample on citizen rights and civil liberties, and get away with it. In that lies India’s salvation.


Shoba Narayan is an author, columnist, journalist and the host of Bird Podcast. She dreams of losing weight without dieting and getting fit without exercising.


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