Agonizing over COVID from 8,000 miles away: Indian Americans feel helpless as family in India falls ill
From 8,000 miles away, New Jersey resident Radhika Iyengar worries about her 82-year-old mother in Bhopal, India.
Her mother is suffering from COVID-19 but unable to get a hospital bed or an oxygen tank as the pandemic reaches catastrophic levels. Iyengar remains in Millburn, N.J., distraught, unable to travel to India with much of the nation on lockdown.
“It’s so overwhelming,” Iyengar said, amid sobs, in an interview this week. “Every house has COVID, ill people. People are dying in cars, their homes.”
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As a second wave of the coronavirus ravages India, Indian Americans are trying to reach loved ones, organizing relief and quietly worrying about relatives caught in what has become the world’s worst outbreak.
“India is experiencing the worst health crisis right now,” said Sapna Gupta of Short Hills. “Almost everyone is impacted by the virus. Many are losing their loved ones, and many are not even getting to say goodbye.”
Stories of deaths tangled in bureaucracy and breakdowns have become dismally common in India, where deaths on Wednesday officially surged past 200,000. The true death toll is believed to be far higher.
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The nation of almost 1.4 billion reported 362,757 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, shattering global records. That pushed the country’s total infections past 17.9 million, second only to the U.S. Health officials have blamed new, more contagious strains of the virus.
Several relatives in Gupta’s immediate and extended family in India have COVID-19. Her family and friends are warily following social-distancing protocols, Gupta said, noting they wear masks, sanitize hands regularly and go out only when absolutely essential.
“Many are doctors and have been vaccinated or have one dose already. Yet this new virus strain seems to be breaking through the vaccine’s defenses,” Gupta said.
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Iyengar is working with her sister in Bhopal, Pooja Iyengar, trying to get relief to those in need through their nonprofit group MSK.
People infected with the virus often need hospitalization or oxygen, but no spare hospital beds and no oxygen tanks are to be found, Gupta said.
It’s “a very scary and grim situation,” said Gupta, who is from Dehradun, in northern India. “And this is for the privileged class in India. I can’t even imagine what low-income families must be going through.”
It’s a population-density issue, said Dev Karlekar of Somerset, N.J. “India has 18% of the land and almost five times the population of the United States. What happens in that case — too many people on a small piece of land — the infection will spread.”
Karlekar compared his home country to China in people and density. China’s autocratic government was able to better contain the virus; India, the world’s largest democracy, has had a messier route.
“Every state is sovereign, so it makes it more complex,” Karlekar said.
Karlekar’s relatives in India have recovered from COVID-related illnesses. Gupta is keeping in touch with about a dozen throughout the country who have fallen ill.
“We keep praying for their recovery and keep our fingers crossed for those who, by God’s grace, are holding on,” Gupta said.
More than 387,000 Indian Americans live in the Garden State, the third-largest population in the U.S. after California and Texas, according to 2018 figures from the group AAPI Data.
Contributing: Associated Press.
Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community for NorthJersey.com. Email: email@example.com