• The Star Staff

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


By Megan Specia


First, there was the scramble to find her father a bed in intensive care. Then came the price gouging for an all but impossible to find therapeutic injection. And, through it all, countless hours on the phone with doctors, family and friends dealing with logistical problems.


From nearly 5,000 miles and five time zones away, Anuja Vakil, 40, has been struggling for the past 12 days to help manage care for her father, Jatin Bhagat, who lies in critical condition in a hospital in Ahmadabad, in India’s western Gujarat state. She knows he has been lucky to get care at all.


“When I pray to God now, it is for my dad,” Vakil said. “He has to come back.”


Cases of the coronavirus have exploded in India in recent weeks, up to nearly 400,000 a day, surpassing all records and still rising. As they have, so, too, has the collective grief and anxiety among the huge Indian diaspora, over loved ones lost or fighting for their lives amid a health care system pushed past the brink. In WhatsApp chats, video calls, Facebook groups and forums, a global community has worried, mourned and organized.


Some 17 million people from India were living outside their homeland in 2020, according to figures from the United Nations, and millions more have Indian heritage, making the diaspora the largest in the world. In the United States, some 4.8 million people were either born in India or reported Indian ancestry on the last census.


As Indians the world over have sought frantically to help sick relatives, London has emerged as an epicenter for COVID relief efforts from the diaspora. Many are organizing in the face of a seemingly impossible situation, pooling money to buy oxygen concentrators, connecting those in need of care with doctors and using community networks to share resources.


Deliveries of aid collected by the diaspora are beginning to arrive in India, alongside government relief from Britain, the United States, Germany and Australia among others.


Vakil has tried to focus on these positives. While it has been hard to be away from family, she says her local Indian community in London has proved to be a lifeline, and she speaks with a friend in New York whose own father is unwell. She tries to lift her father’s spirits with daily video calls, and his doctors are hopeful he can pull through.


Her father can’t speak because of the pressure-controlled ventilation helping him breathe, but he nods in response when she speaks. She can see the small creases spread out around his eyes when she manages to make him smile.


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


India was added to Britain’s travel “red list” last week, halting nearly all direct flights and imposing an expensive and mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine for the few citizens and residents who are allowed in. And on Friday, the United States said it would start restricting travel from India beginning this week.


The restrictions, steep costs, job commitments and a fear of contracting the virus have left many unable to travel. As cases of the coronavirus continue to rise, many described painful conversations with friends and relatives at home, and a feeling of helplessness as they watched the horrors unfold half a world away.


Jyoti Minocha, a writer and substitute teacher who lives in Fairfax, Virginia, worries about her mother and sister in New Delhi. She recently lost a cousin, and said she checks in with family by phone daily. “The streets are hushed, ghostlike, my sister says,” she wrote in a text message. “The only sound you hear are ambulance sirens.”


“I speak to my mom almost everyday,” said Ansh Sachdeva, 23, a student at Bolton University in northwest England. “But every time I’m calling, someone has died. Someone has got COVID.”


He says that on the street in New Delhi where his parents live, no house has been untouched. He traveled home in November to help care for his parents and grandfather who had contracted the virus. But now he worries that they could fall ill again, and the new travel restrictions would make it impossible for him to get there.


In January, his mother had been the one worried about him returning to Britain, when a troubling second wave of the virus was taking hold there. “For them,” he said of the general perception in India earlier this year, “COVID was over.”


But it wasn’t over. Many Indians abroad watched with unease as the government allowed cricket matches in packed stadiums, mass election rallies and a major religious festival called Kumbh Mela, where millions gathered in one city. Meanwhile, case levels began to rise exponentially.


In Britain, home to a vibrant and diverse community of people with roots in India, the pain is palpable. In a neighborhood shop in Harrow, a community in London’s northwest with a large Indian population, two staffers recounted losing a brother in the last week.


Harmeet Gill, 31, was born and raised in London, but his parents are from Indian’s northern Punjab State, and they remain extremely close with extended family there.


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


But it didn’t last, and on Monday his uncle died from the coronavirus. 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 tight-knit Sikh family.


“It’s just the sheer, sort of, helplessness of it,” he said, adding that along with the shock and sorrow is a growing anger about government mismanagement. “They know it didn’t need to happen the way it has happened.”