Don’t Forget People Are Still Dying In India

Trinity Cares Foundation fight against COVID-19 in Jangamakote Village. (Creative Commons License 2.0)
Trinity Cares Foundation fight against COVID-19 in Jangamakote Village. (Creative Commons License 2.0)

It started in mid-March 2021, the many videos of grandparents hugging their kids post-vaccination in the US. Families reunited safely after a year or more of waiting to touch. Pictures of social interaction among vaccinated people started appearing on social media feeds. People sat outdoors in restaurants in the sun. The CDC guidance changed about masks for vaccinated people.  

I live in the NY area. Perhaps, we can go to Broadway shows again soon. Maybe, we can relegate to memory those days of heartbreaking pictures of daughters looking in through the windows of nursing homes to get a glimpse of their mothers through the glass and families trying to decide whether to have Thanksgiving dinners sitting as far apart as possible in different rooms.

I do like the current optimism in the US on COVID. But for some of us, the pandemic is far from over. As an immigrant from India, I wish American media covered more world news.

For me, the pandemic is still very much alive. When I check my WhatsApp in the morning, before the fog of sleep has cleared, there is news from India. It may be that again someone we knew has passed away from COVID. In Facebook groups, someone else is looking for oxygen. The lucky ones are waiting three hours in line for a vaccine, while others don’t know when they will get a dose at all. They don’t need beer, donuts, or million-dollar lottery prizes as incentives to get vaccinated. 

There is a raging pandemic going on in India and in major parts of the world. If you believe in the overarching value of human life, you ought to be worried. 

I have been living in the US for more than two decades. As an immigrant, my threshold for pain is different. Even in regular times in my community, only the lucky children get to physically run and hug their grandparents once a year on a trip to India. We are lucky if we get to attend weddings of close relatives or be present when nephews and nieces are born. Every time we leave home in India, we aren’t quite sure whether we will see the very old ever again. 

No, the pandemic hasn’t ended for me. 

My septuagenarian father in Kolkata, India, who is disoriented after losing his wife last year in August, and has been socially distancing in the pandemic for so long, can neither go to the bank to stand in line or go to the fish market like he used to. He still has not been able to return to a fully independent life of doing the things he used to do. He has been taking social distancing seriously and I just long to hug him after my mother’s passing.

My father sits in a room surrounded by buildings that block the sky on all sides. There is no place to take a walk safely without running into people, even though that number continues to decrease because of COVID-related deaths. One neighbor, who called before my mother’s shradh ceremony (which is similar to a funeral) to inform us that she couldn’t attend, passed away just a few days later from COVID.

I talk to my father on the phone every day and tell him that all this will be over soon without really knowing what to believe myself. So, I switch to a conversation about how things are looking up in New York – at least he is happy that I am safe. 

Cable news channels in the US constantly state that the pandemic is ending. Occasionally, there is some coverage of other countries on the chyron when some complex US political complication is being discussed animatedly on the main screen. While there was never very much coverage of world news through the pandemic, I had hoped that we would hear more about those that are passing, at least from here in the US.

I live in the US and have lived here for twenty years. I am hoping the pandemic ends here. I teach in a college in Manhattan. I’m fully vaccinated. I’m eager to see my students in person just like anyone else. I’m hoping everyone else will be vaccinated when I take the train to Penn Station from New Jersey in the Fall. I, too, am hoping to sit in a cafe and write. I’m glad I can bring in groceries, now, without disinfecting them obsessively. But even as I think of my life here, I’m aware of the suffering of people in other countries. That is not just because I’m an immigrant. It’s because even before I became an immigrant, I grew up with the consciousness of the world through world news in India. 

For the first year of the pandemic, my experience of the pandemic in the US and India was parallel. I was looking in through the glass at my ailing mother last year all through her 5 months of sickness in Kolkata. I couldn’t visit her during the first Indian lockdown and the first wave of COVID in India. The glass in my case was not a hospital ICU wall but a phone video screen. The video was often blurred. Sometimes, I thought she recognized me on the screen. Sometimes, I thought she only saw the phone. She lost speech and then we eventually lost her in August 2020 through indescribable hardship.

For those of us, who lost someone close in the COVID world, the post-COVID world, if and when it comes, will never be the same.

For months I have been planning on how to visit my father in India safely. I have planned various scenarios in my head through the spikes in COVID cases in the US and India, and through lockdowns, flight cancellations, planning local transportation in India, COVID tests, seat availability, vaccination – tracking every little large and small last-mile problem through my mind’s eye. 

Yet, I have only ended up reassuring my father in India over the phone that he will go to the fish market soon, that he will be able to stand in line at the bank soon, that it will be safe for him to walk on the teeming Kolkata streets soon. My visit almost worked out when I completed my second dose of the vaccine in the US, but that’s when the deadly second wave hit India in April. My travel plans are on hold again.

World news should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter and not just because a virus mutating in the developing world can put the developed world in jeopardy. 

Death should matter just because we value human life.


Madhura Bandyopadhyay is a Doctoral Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY) in Manhattan, New York. She grew up in Kolkata, India and has lived in Florida, California, and Singapore. She lives in New Jersey now. Apart from being a teacher and scholar of writing, she blogs in her spare time just for fun on her blog at bottledworder.com 


 

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