‘Like purgatory’: diaspora in despair as India sinks deeper into Covid crisis

By Maanvi Singh

Since the pandemic began, Fatima Ahmed has lost 29 of her family members in India and one in the US to Covid-19.

A few days ago, her uncle died in his car as he was driving back home from a hospital in Hyderabad, a city in southern India. “All the hospitals were at capacity, so they couldn’t take him in,” said Ahmed. “He pulled over and he called the rest of the family, the khandan – before he passed.”

Each loss has amplified her anger – at the mass crisis unfolding 8,000 miles away, at the shortages of oxygen and vaccines, at the anti-Muslim attacks stoked by Indian officials who have scapegoated religious minorities as the country. Ahmed, an academic and activist based in New Jersey, has asked the Guardian to use a pseudonym for privacy and safety concerns.

As the US begins to emerge from the depths of the coronavirus crisis, India is sinking. And the 4.8 million members of the diaspora in the US, like Ahmed, have been anxiously monitoring their phones in case of news that an old neighbor, or relative, or close friend has died. The despair has permeated across time zones, as Indian Americans scramble to secure oxygen canisters and hospital beds for family members, desperately work to raise funds, donate resources and pressure US legislators to lift vaccine patents.

“I’ve been feeling hopeless and disconnected and guilty,” said Himanshu Suri, a New York-based rapper. Suri’s father died of Covid-19 at a Long Island nursing home last April, at the height of surge in New York. Instead of flying to India to spread his dad’s ashes this spring, as he’d planned, Suri has watched from afar as the subcontinent is engulfed by the pandemic.

“I thought I’d feel happier after getting the vaccine,” he said – but there’s been no sense of relief. “Instead, I’ve had this feeling, like I’m in purgatory.”

Unable to fly home to help or comfort loved ones, many Indian Americans have leveraged their power and money to pressure political leaders, raise awareness and build up grassroots aid efforts. In recent weeks, Indian American doctors and health workers have joined activists in successfully pressuring the Biden administration to send supplies, and help waive intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines to help ramp up production.

Relatives carry the body of a victim who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in New Delhi on 5 May 2021.
Relatives carry the body of a victim who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in New Delhi on 5 May 2021. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Many have also called for a harder-line stance against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, a rightwing Hindu nationalist and US ally who before the surge lifted most coronavirus restrictions and had held massive, in-person political rallies. As reported cases began to rise exponentially, graphing a nearly vertical trend line, his administration has also been accused of hiding the true toll, cracking down on critical social media posts and threatening journalists who question his party line.

Meanwhile, India’s most vulnerable – including the poorest, those on the lowest rungs of the caste system, religious minorities and Indigenous people, have faced the worst effects.

The denialism, refusal to enact lockdown measures and the evasion of responsibility by scapegoating of minorities by officials in Modi’s government have sparked comparisons to the Trump administration, compounding the anger felt by some Indian American families.

“When there’s more anger and backlash from some leaders at the media showing images of cremated bodies, than the fact that so many people are dying, it’s extremely angering,” said Suri. “We saw how badly things played out last year, with our own government – and seeing it all play out similarly over there is extremely frustrating.”

Suri said the crisis had reshaped his daily schedule: he begins each work day by checking in on Indian artists and musicians – asking after their health and contributing to grassroots efforts to raise funds for medical supplies. Each night, before heading to bed, he checks in with family members. For the first time, he’s also begun to discuss politics and philanthropy with cousins, over group chat. “We don’t typically talk about those things,” he said,

The crisis has brought on “a real moment of reckoning within the diaspora”, said Sruti Suryanarayanan, a hate violence researcher at Saalt, a south Asian justice and research organization. “We’re going to have to hold the Indian government, and the American government accountable for what’s happened during this pandemic.”

Saalt volunteers have been organizing mutual aid efforts, and helping the most vulnerable in India and Nepal find ICU beds and oxygen canisters. The organization has also joined with the Sikh Coalition and other groups campaigning for the Biden administration to direct medical resources to India, and pressure the Modi government to ensure that historically marginalized groups including Dalit, Adivasi, Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Kashmiri communities get equal access to vaccines.

Suryanarayanan said Saalt has been monitoring instances of hate crimes against Indian Americans, amid a surge of scapegoating and hate crimes against Asian Americans in the US. Sikh and Muslim Americans, who were already among the most-targeted, may be especially vulnerable now, they said, as social media posts characterizing Indian Americans as contagious circulate online.

A Covid-19 coronavirus patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs on 6 May 2021.
A Covid-19 coronavirus patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs on 6 May 2021. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

“With a health crisis of this scale, your physical wellbeing, your mental wellbeing all rely on everybody, around the world being safe,” Suryanarayanan said.

“I’ve just been looking to do anything that will give me some sense of feeling a little less helpless,” said Zain Alam, a New York-based musician and artist. As cases began to rise exponentially in India, Alam’s best friend, Mohit, was one of a crew of first responders in New Delhi filling and refilling oxygen canisters and delivering them to the sick.

“He hadn’t slept for 48 hours when we were finally able to connect with him – it was 4am over there,” said Ajay Madiwale, another New York-based friend who works in humanitarian aid. “It just felt ethically untenable for us over here not to be doing more.”

Alam, Madiwale and their friend Anjali Kumar have organized an effort called Doctors in Diaspora, which connects physicians and healthcare workers in the US with providers and patients in India. “We saw so many Indian doctors responding, on the frontlines of the crisis in the US,” Madiwale said. “And now we have this huge capacity to help people in India.” Nearly 200 doctors have enrolled in the program so far, getting ready to offer advice, insight and emotional support to colleagues on the front line.

Kumar, who helped launch a secure platform for Covid patients at US hospitals and senior care facilities to video call loved ones, has also used the same platform to help doctors connect across oceans. “The south Asian community in New York was disproportionately affected during the first wave in New York, especially when hospitals in Queens were running out of beds,” Mediwale said. “And now, just when we’re getting back to normal, we’re again watching our loved ones suffer from even farther away.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised Americans not to travel to India, and placed restrictions on air travel to the subcontinent. So, the diaspora has been mourning from afar.

For each member of her family that has died, Ahmed has read out one chapter Qu'r’an. “Each family member reads one or two chapters – on their own – and we mark in a Google Doc what we’ve read,” she said. “It’s not the same as us all gathering to recite the Qur’an together – but it helps us feel connected.”