“You can marry anyone you like, but just not a Muslim.”
These divisive words are heard by many young Hindu-Americans over the dinner table, even today. Although first-generation Americans are far away from their homeland, they carry on many of the ideas, practices, and divisions that are rife many seas away.
This experience of religious divide in India was the foundation of a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank that seeks to study social issues and capture the way people move about in the world. The report, released on June 29th, 2021 aimed to measure religious beliefs across India by surveying 30,000 adults in various states and regions across the country.
“Overall, the story that’s appearing (at least from high-level findings) is largely one that reflects not the headlines that you’re going to find in the New York Times or the Washington Post,” said Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director of HAF.
India is tolerant—but segregated.
Of the many findings that emerged from the report, the data overwhelmingly pointed to this conclusion. Indians feel free to practice their religions and feel that others should have that same freedom.
However, Indians have a “Not in My Backyard” mentality towards other religions. Other religions can have their own practices—somewhere else.
Quite literally, many Indians do not want people from other religions as their neighbors. They prefer to be surrounded by folks who represent their own beliefs. About 45% of Hindus could not accept someone from at least one of the other major religions as their neighbor. The same goes for 36% of Muslims, 61% of Jains, and 41% of Sikhs.
The same in-group mentality extends to Indians in their friendships. “Hindus overwhelmingly say that most or all of their close friends are also Hindu… But even among Sikhs and Jains, who each form a sliver of the national population, a large majority say their friends come mainly or entirely from their small religious community,” the report states.
Indians also believe that they must stop inter-religious marriages. They do not wish to see individuals in their own religious circles marrying outside of it. While this may be no surprise to many Indians, the contrast between segregation and the nominal tolerance that Indians self-identify with is stark.
This stated dichotomy between religious freedom and segregation seems problematic to the outside eye. What does tolerance even mean if communities seek to stay separate from each other? India’s history of religion is a complicated one, and unfurling where these notions come from is a centuries-old task. It’s no surprise that Indians tend to take their religion (and others’) as a very serious part of day-to-day life.
For the Indian-American community, these sentiments from the motherland carry forward. Though the Pew Research Center’s study did not survey the Indian diaspora, there has been a Carnegie Endowment study that has tried to capture religious and political attitudes within the Indian-American community. The study, which surveyed 1,200 Indian-Americans found that the diaspora community feels ties to their religion and their caste group. In the Indian-American community, 40% of the members say they pray daily, and half of the Hindu respondents identify with their caste. Most Indian-Americans surround themselves with social groups that share similar backgrounds, and they are politically polarized between party lines, whether that be American political parties or Indian ones.
While the Carnegie Endowment did not study the phenomenon of tolerated separation in the Indian-American community, the fact that most Indian-Americans choose to only socialize with other Indian-Americans demonstrates how the diaspora may be evolving in similar ways to the homeland. Across the world, polarization is a lived reality, and more often than not people seek solace who look like them, think like them, and share their beliefs.
However, such separation cannot and should not be the solution. Contact theory reinforces the idea that the more time two different groups spend in contact with one another, the more often people feel positively about the other group.
So, get out into your community. Talk to people from different religious backgrounds, volunteer with them, work with them. Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where we’re more tolerant and less divided.
Swathi Ramprasad is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.
As India gears up to its 75th Independence Day on August 2022, Indians in Atlanta had their own reasons to celebrate this Independence Day this year with even more pride and patriotic fervor. With earnest efforts initiated by India American Cultural Association (IACA), Governor Brian Kemp issued a Proclamation declaring August 15, 2021, as India Day in the state of Georgia. The presentation of the proclamation was held at North stairs of Georgia Capitol Thursday, August 5, 2021, in the presence of community leaders and representatives from various organizations of the community.
“We are honored and thankful to Governor Brian Kemp for recognizing the contributions of the Indian community in the state of Georgia with the declaration of August 15th as India Day. This gives me immense pleasure as a member of the community,” said Chand Akkineni, President, IACA who initiated the process for proclamation.
The proclamation reads:
“Stepping into its Diamond Anniversary year, ever since August 15, 1947, India’s non-violent struggle for freedom, its rejection of terrorism and extremism, and its belief in democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law have been an inspiration and beacon of hope for people around the world, including Atlanta’s very own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by Gandhian principles; and
On August 15, 2021, India American Cultural Association (IACA) will host its 25th Annual flagship event, Festival of India at the Gas South Convention Center inviting people of Georgia to celebrate India’s Independence from the British, showcasing India at its cultural and intellectual best with spectacular performances from the finest dance, music and all performing arts academies across Atlanta and an interesting line up of seminars on diverse themes, both classical and contemporary; and
IACA’s Festival of India represents diverse Indian population from various regions of India, including Georgia’s multifaceted Indian Americans who are entrepreneurs in myriad of fields, health care providers, engineers, technocrats, educators, small business owners, attorneys, judges, writers, authors and artists who continue to contribute greatly to social, economic, and civic health of Georgia; and
India’s Independence Day is one of India’s three national holidays celebrated by 1.3 billion people across the country and two million in the US with flag-hoisting ceremonies, parades and much more; and
The fact that Georgia features in the top ten U.S. Metropolitan areas that houses the Indian American population of 137,000 as of 2019 bears testament to the fact that Georgia fosters and nurtures diversity; and Indian corporations and businesses working with Georgia to open up trade relations between them, aided by local Indian American Georgia residents binds and builds strong relations between the world’s two largest democracies.”
“We are grateful to our Governor for recognizing the many contributions of the Indian American Community in Georgia and honoring India on its 75th Independence Day by declaring August 15, 2021, as India Day in Georgia,” stated Neera Bahl, Director and Appellate Division Judge at Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation. Bahl played an instrumental role in the implementation of the proclamation.
Incepted in 1971, IACA is the oldest Indian American organization in Atlanta represents a unified Indian community with diverse and dedicated membership comprising people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. IACA has stood the test of time, braving through evolving social, economic, and political landscapes in the city and its people, Indian Americans, in particular. The multitude and multi-faceted Indian populace that call Atlanta home today are rooted in organizations such as IACA founded by its earnest pioneers who collectively carved a niche for the community, garnering adulation from people of their adopted country while paving a smoother path for generations to come.
Festival of Indiawas conceptualized by IACA in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. One of Atlanta’s largest South Asian events, the signature event continues to draw thousands of audiences each year. The festival showcases India at its cultural and intellectual best with spectacular performances from Atlanta’s finest dance, music, and all performing arts academies, an interesting lineup of seminars on diverse themes, competitions, shopping, and quintessential aspect of every Indian home – food. This year FOI will be held at Gas South Convention Center on August 15, 2021, an in-person event with covid safety protocols. IACA extends a warm welcome to all interested attendees to register at foi.eventtitans.com
At a time when the community sensed the need for Indian organizations to safeguard their ethnicity and heritage, back in the 60s and 70s, IACA stepped in and continues to be an effective platform and a catalyst in bringing the community closer. Organizations such as IACA and events like FOI play an essential part in raising awareness, showcasing our culture, and shaping the perspective of American society.
“This is a historic and proud moment for the community, to be recognized and have representation in the state of Georgia. I am thankful to Governor Kemp for acknowledging India’s contributions to the world and the role of IACA in fostering community activities. I am honored to have drafted this proclamation on behalf of IACA,” said Jyothsna Hegde, editor of the IACA newsletter, and city news editor of NRI Pulse.
Medha, may I take the liberty of stating you looked so much better and more natural with no filter than with it?
I love your points about society deeming certain White physical traits as attractive ones, however, we don’t have to pander to it. We can simply ignore those standards and learn to feel comfortable in our own skin. No one is holding a gun to the heads of Indian women and forcing them to get blonde highlights, or worse, go totally blonde, yet many Indian women do. It will be a while before Indians feel pride in their nation, their religion, their dress, their food, their customs, and their languages. It is the unfortunate aftermath of the toxic British colonialistic legacy that still lingers on and makes us belittle ourselves.
It has nothing to do with White culture, and everything to do with how we Indians feel about ourselves. Let’s take accountability for it and begin the change from within. Kudos to you for your candid self-expression.
Go ahead and eat that idli-sambar and lick your fingers clean!
Yoga has always afforded me a sort of mental vacation that helps recenter my focus and energy. It probably sounds a bit esoteric. But let me explain. I find the routine of a few sun salutations, twists, an inversion, the quiet heaviness of shavasana, and some full belly “Oms” revitalizing. After which I breathe deeply with renewed energy, ready to take on and make the most of the at times, challenge-filled fluidity of working from home and remote school, for instance.
More recently during this anxiety-inducing pandemic, as I worry about our family’s safety in India or read about the ever-spiking cases and crumbling health care system there, my intermittent and improvised yoga practice allows me to calm my nerves and think more positively. I hope for a happy day when we are able to travel to India with our two boys, so they may be able to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, in-person, and I, my folks.
I am by no means a certified yoga instructor – merely a yoga enthusiast who has turned to this ancient Indian practice every now and then at various stages of my life for over two decades now, reaping its wonderful benefits. Every time I surrender to my mat, I rise in a strange mind-body-soul harmony, gently yet firmly, reminding me ‘to just be’. To accept, be grateful, make the most of ‘now’, mindfully and intentionally going about my day.
While I am cognizant that everyone has their go-to activity or means to de-stress and relax, like listening to music, running, taking a short nap, or reading, yoga is mine. The reason I was drawn to it is because it made me pause and slow down my pace of life and mind. I also very quickly realized that yoga doesn’t have to be complicated or enigmatic. It doesn’t need much equipment, space, or time. It’s easy and beneficial. I can do it whenever I want and for as long as I want (or can).
So, over the years, I have devised my own ‘yoga toolkit’. It has helped me mindfully navigate the curveballs at work and as a full-time parent. And it continues to assist me today, as I, like millions of others navigate this global pandemic, making sense of it, praying for a better tomorrow.
To stay calm, centered, rational, and in control, I often resort to the following yoga tools. I don’t necessarily follow these sequentially or attempt to go through each of them. I simply do what I can.
Breathe deeply for that much-needed clarity.
We breathe all the time. Why not make it conscious and intentional? It’s cathartic and effortless. The two things we all value, especially these days. Focusing on my breath for a few minutes magically helps me hit that reset button. And we all know, taking a pause can help us rationally re-evaluate a variety of situations – personal and/or professional.
When under stress, do the downward dog.
You may end up doing it a LOT. It’s no secret that our current reality possibly fills the most formerly self-assured people with doubts: small, big, and huge. Often! But when has a bit of stretching, sculpting, toning, and blood flowing to the brain been a bad thing? It not only helps us all take that much-needed pause but forces us to see the world from an upside-down (different?) perspective.
Create space between the ears and shoulders.
This is something we don’t even think about but can do all the time – while sitting, standing, and lying down. Just pull your shoulders down and straighten your neck to create some space between the tips of your ears and the tops of your shoulders. Not only check your posture but also feel that stress release. You’ll likely feel taller, more in control, and will look graceful too. Tip – you can add to it by tucking in your tummy, working those abs. But don’t forget to breathe!
Relax in child’s pose.
Again, a little bit of flexibility and stress/ blood pressure reduction can’t be all bad! A time to rest, and reset, and secretly build flexibility and work those abs.
Massage the top of your head and the nape of your neck.
Isn’t that what they did when physically going for a massage was a possibility? Granted, it’s not the same as getting that divine massage, but it’s certainly something. Creating some scalp blood circulation apparently helps with hair growth too.
Lie in Shavasana for that divine sleep and mental reset.
A few minutes of Shavasana prior to a nap or hitting the sack for the night helps me breathe deeply and relax, setting me up for some quality rest time. Tip – a scalp massage with some meditation music prior only makes the sleep deeper and more restful.
Feel free to harness the power of this ‘Yoga toolkit’ alone or with kid(s), your spouse/ partner. It’s relatively simple and doesn’t entail much. Best of all, it’s iterative. Pick what you feel like. Add to it if you want to. If a backbend or headstand is part of your practice, go for it. If you want to just lay down, massage your head, and tune out breathing deeply in Shavasana, do it! It’s also indulgent. Remember to work with your energy levels and time commitments. Don’t endeavor for that perfect pose. These tools can be hugely gratifying, relaxing, and mentally and physically centering. Something we all crave and can benefit from.
Here’s wishing us all the very best, as we surge forward with positivity, gratitude, and mindful intention.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om…….
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan is an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. Her pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.
As America celebrates the loosening of the mask mandate, on the other side of the globe, there is a contrasting scene unfolding, complete with doom and gloom. Since April 2021, India has been battling the second wave of Coronavirus. Mass funerals, new variant reports, vaccine shortage, and an overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure are the new themes in the Indian media outlets.
Whatsapp is abuzz with concerned messages from loved ones as well as news of losses and hospitalizations. Social media is brimming with not only political whodunnit analyses but also generous fundraising efforts.
Stories abound on how nepotism and bribery came to the forefront, especially when procuring a hospital bed. While in the same thread, we hear heart-tugging stories of kindness and sacrifices, where the human spirit has triumphed.
If you are an Indian immigrant living in the United States with family back home, then you are likely living the nightmare you have always dreaded – that late-night call.
The fear that you are unable to be there for your family during their darkest hour.
The survivor’s guilt has possibly reached its peak within you.
Indian immigrants are experiencing high levels of anxiety right now. Some are grieving, some are feeling helpless or guilty. The impact these emotions could have on their health and wellness is unimaginable. Especially given the always-on work culture in corporate America.
As Indian immigrants continue to power through Zoom meetings, work deadlines, and deliverables, there is little empathy shown in most Corporate American settings. There are not enough conversations about the toll this second wave is taking on the wellness of Indian Immigrants in the United States.
The anxiety attacks.
The sleepless nights.
The emotional eating disorders.
The survivor’s guilt, which is probably the hardest to reconcile.
While we continue to hope for the situation in India to improve and demand immigration policy reforms, here are five things we can do to take charge of our well being right away:
PLAN A FAMILY ACTIVITY: While our families are in lockdown in India, create a simple daily or weekly activity together, where you and a family member are bonding. Here is an example for inspiration. Bring out a new book and write down recipes from your mother, father, grandmother, or sibling. And even attempt cooking it! Food is love and food is nostalgia, and hence a powerful medium to stay connected. Also, most family recipes are hearsay and rarely documented in a structured format. So this will be a prized possession for years to come!
FOCUS on BASICS: Sleep & hydration. During extreme moments of anxiety, insomnia could surface for some of us and sleep quality and quantity may be negatively impacted. In addition, watching our water intake could take a back seat and we could be hydrating ourselves poorly. When you are going through a rough phase, it is best to keep things simple and focus on basics i.e. Sleep and Hydration. Moreover given these are emotional times, our food cravings could also come back with a vengeance. Maintaining good sleep hygiene and staying hydrated will help with those food cravings too.
GET GROUNDED IN NATURE: With the weather warming up in the northern hemisphere, getting out in the sun and soaking in the abundance that nature offers, will help destress and calm those nerves. Also, feel empowered to take a social media break, a news break, or a complete digital detox to reconnect with nature in any way that feels most aligned with you.
GRATITUDE JOURNAL: It has been hard to stay positive for even the most optimistic person in the room. And hearing for the nth time “Stay positive” or writing affirmations may neither be effective nor helpful right now. But having a gratitude practice, especially in the form of a journal can be transformational. When you bring paper and pen together, the brain is able to process the emotions a bit better, especially those of anxiety and grief. Write 3 things every morning that you are grateful for before you get immersed in the daily grind (Note: this can be the littlest thing!).
FACE THE GUILT: Lastly and likely the most challenging, as facing the Survivor’s guilt requires a great deal of vulnerability. Becoming aware and acknowledging this guilt, which may be wrecking those who have had losses amongst their families or friends is hard. Moreover, there is still a fair bit of stigma around getting help from a therapist or a counselor in the South Asian community. However, try and step beyond that stigma if you can and get help from a licensed practitioner to process this guilt.
By September this year, children as young as two may be eligible for a Covid vaccine. While many parents welcome the prospect of protection against a deadly virus, some parents aren’t so sure.
What do parents think about vaccinating their children?
“In my circle”, says Anjana Nagarajan, a Los Altos parent with two high school age children, “parents are gung-ho.” Her 16-year-old daughter is fully vaccinated while her 14-year-old son just received his first shot. Her view is largely shared by parents in her area where, according to CA data, almost 87% of the population have received one or more doses of the vaccine.
But for Priya Nair Flores, a management consultant in San Antonio, TX, the vaccine is still out of reach for her son who just graduated fifth grade. “My son is 11 years old,” says Flores, “so he’s one year from the age at which CDC recommends children start getting the COVID vaccine, which is 12 years old. I and other parents of his friends talk about how much we wish they could get the vaccine. I believe in science.”
The science says that the vaccine is safe. Clinical trials have demonstrated even higher efficacy rate among adolescents than young adults (16-25 years old). The FDA just approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in adolescents 12 to 15 years old. Moderna just announced that its TeenCove study was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in adolescents ages 12 to less than 18 and will request FDA emergency authorization in early June. By this fall, children ages 2-11 could potentially be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It will be the next major milestone in containing the coronavirus pandemic.
Even so, though vaccine availability across the US is going up, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, citing concerns about the newness of the vaccine and its potential side effects in the future. Public health experts fear that vaccine hesitancy will prolong the fight against Covid19.
Scientists and doctors emphasize that vaccinations are safe and offer protection from COVID-19. The CDC reports that some people may experience short-term side effects which subside after a few days but are normal signs that the body is building protection.
However, at an Ethnic Media briefing on May 21, Dr. Jose Perez, Chief Medical Officer at the South-Central Medical Center in LA, identified misinformation spreading on the Internet as a troubling cause of vaccine hesitancy in his patients.
Dr. Perez’ view was supported by surveys which found that fear and uncertainty about the Covid 19 vaccine ranged from its safety and efficacy to myths about infertility, and fetal cells in vaccines that could change DNA. Among 48% of people ages 18-49 , fear of future infertility was a top concern.
There was uneasiness that the vaccine was created too quickly, even though the technology for mRNA vaccines has been in development for decades and processed through the same FDA clinical trials for all other vaccines.
A KFF survey found that while 30% of parents with children aged 12 to 15 will get them vaccinated right away, nearly 23% definitely will not.
When it comes to vaccinating their children, households which have an annual income of under $25,000 or people who have only high school diplomas are the most vaccine resistant, added Simonsen, compared to most pro-vaccine people who tend to live in households making $150,000+ a year or hold a graduate degree.
But, for many parents explained Dr. Perez, whose clinic serves primarily Latino and African American working families, vaccination hesitancy is not a choice. Rather, socio-economic barriers keep many from getting the vaccine.
“One of the major reasons for lack of vaccination, is access to time off from work,” he explained. Parents who have just returned to work low-income jobs as day laborers or in restaurants, have to juggle taking an extra half day off to get their children to a clinic. Most of Dr. Perez’ patients use the bus, so it’s difficult to access public vaccine centers without a car.
“It’s a tremendous barrier,” he stated when “our patients are being asked to choose between earning a day’s living and or vaccinating their children.”
The KFF survey also confirms that underlying socio-economic factors cause vaccine hesitancy. People worry they may have to pay out-of-pocket costs for the vaccine. Fears about immigration status and vaccine eligibility have created vaccine hesitancy because of requirements for a social security number or government-issued identification to get vaccinated (34%), a lack of trust in the provider (32%), or travel difficulties reaching vaccination sites (15%).
Allison Winnike of Texas-based Immunization Partnership told KERA news that their data showed increased vaccination rates in communities of color who were initially skeptical, but that there were higher hesitancy rates among some people that self-identify as more conservative or evangelical.
As a parent himself, with children aged 3 and 4, Vivek Murthy empathized with the challenges of parenting kids in a pandemic which has percolated into kids’ lives in an extraordinary way. “Parents have had to have difficult conversations with their kids about why they can’t see friends and family or have to go to virtual classes.” But parents also worry about the risks of taking their children to the playground or back to school, he said, which is why vaccinating them should be the highest priority.
“It’s a significant disease. Kids are also at risk,” said Dr. Grace Lee, Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. She has personally seen children hospitalized and dying from the virus. Lee pointed out that less attention had been paid to the ‘burden of infection’ on children, though AAP data has confirmed that 4 million children have tested positive for Covid 19 since the onset of the pandemic. She warned that the CDC noted that when adjusting for under-reporting or under-testing on children, at least “22 million children and adolescents 5 to 17 years have been infected in the US since the pandemic began.” Forty percent of children who are hospitalized have no high-risk conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity or developmental delay or immune compromise issues, said Dr. Lee, “So, we cannot predict who will be hit more severely by Covid 19 infection.”
“We have to protect children from Covid disease,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a principal investigator at Stanford Pfizer trials told NBC. She reiterated that vaccines are necessary for herd immunity. Reports of long-term side effects in teens are only rumors spread by anti-vaxers she added. “There is no evidence that vaccines cause fertility issues – it’s an idea that “has been disproven over and over again.”
In Texas, Priya Flores agrees. “We are a family of scientists and I strongly believe that facts should impact your decision making.” As a healthcare professional, she was in the early wave of those vaccinated . “I felt lucky and grateful I could access the best of what science could offer. When my extended family who wasn’t vaccinated got sick with Covid, I was able to help them because I was better protected by the vaccine. It was challenging because I wanted my husband and kid to get it too.”
How to Move Forward
Getting that shot in the arms of adults and children means that “The role of people of color like me and professionals like me becomes very important,” said Dr. Perez. Providers who are POC need to dispel misinformation and encourage parents to vaccinate themselves and their children, because when “patients trust people that look like them, the more likely they are to listen to our voices.”
“We have paid a heavy price” said Dr. Murthy, referring to the unprecedented toll on human lives by the virus, but the US has a pathway out of the pandemic with its arsenal of vaccines that time and again, have proven effective.
In Texas, the CDC reports that 51.73% of Texans are fully vaccinated. But Priya Flores says her family is only ‘half protected’ from the virus as she waits for her son’s age group to be approved. “I often tell my husband our job has shifted from constant vigilance in general to vigilance for our son. We have relaxed a bit, but once again, …the virus hasn’t disappeared, and our fellow Americans haven’t decided to help our children gain herd immunity. So here we are again.”
“If someone asked my son to be part of a vaccine trial I would say yes. I believe in this vaccine and that it is safe and effective for almost all, with the understanding that there will always be vulnerable populations that need higher monitoring and consideration before deciding to take it.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
image source: CDC
In the third week of April, I was planning to fly to India to check on my mother and extended family. My sister was in line for her second shot of the Covishield vaccine against COVID-19. We were excited to celebrate April birthdays and Mother’s day after 2 years. My bags were packed.
India, the second most populated country in the world with over 1.3 billion Indians seemed to have a decent handle on the pandemic. The world watched the initial twenty-day lockdown in India, followed by the mass exodus of migrant workers. Perhaps innate immunity to tropical diseases was helping Indians against COVID. Was the blistering heat not conducive to viral proliferation? Was the COVID-19 strain in India less infectious?
The Serum Institute of India was gearing up for vaccines for domestic and international use. Before Indian citizens were vaccinated, Indian vaccines were exported out of the country. Indian government and citizens were confident of their innate immunity. Steeped in a false sense of bravado, India reopened for business in early 2021. Unmasked gatherings, cricket matches, political rallies, and weddings continued while the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 was raging in a vulnerable unvaccinated population.
Meanwhile, the weeks-long Hindu Pilgrimage congregation in Haridwar (Kumbh Mela) was not canceled. This year Hanuman Jayantiwas on 26-27th of April the night of the pink full moon (Chaitra Purnima). This holy dip in the Ganga (Shahi Snan) was considered to be very auspicious. Many devotees tested positive and spread the disease in crowded trains and buses and to their contacts back home. The infectious curve changed from a plateau to a wall. The health care system was overwhelmed. Hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen, medicines. Meanwhile, there was an acute vaccine shortage, and hurdles in getting the vaccine.
My friends and family members are not fully vaccinated to date. So many innocent lives were lost! Fires burnt nonstop. In the first wave, it took five months for the 98,000 a day caseload to about 10,000 a day. This time, the peak is much higher and the downward trend of the second wave could be prolonged. The only hope is to raise herd immunity by mass vaccinations.
I composed two poems, out of my anguish. My idea is not to criticize. I am trying to process the trauma in my community. My poems document our complex human frailty.
“I will make such a wonderful India…” @Narendra Modi 4/11/18
Maskless. He addressed them.
Rows upon rows, their
brains steeped in fervor.
They cheered and rallied, then
thronged on the shores of a
weary Ganges, sullying her body
of water. Over and over again.
Inviting Lord Yama to extinguish
He came with a vengeance.
Coronavirus vanquished thousands.
Breathless, their bodies crumpled on
No oxygen. No vaccine. No potion.
No healers. No chant. No mantra.
No yantra. No tantra. No soothsayer.
No friend or family member
could save them from their own folly.
They burnt in communal fires in
parking lots. The stench of death
smearing the khadi shawl of
Mother India. She wept
and rued their misguided deeds.
The pandemic raged on,
mindless of caste, creed, age, gender
or status. Even the mighty were
But who will be held accountable
for cremating those innocent souls
who died without rupees for firewood?
Flying Monkey Moon
The moon maiden was full
and deliciously pink
A bit pompous,
A butter macaroon, freshly baked
Double pink peony daydream.
Cumulus cloud carpet
Covered the midnight sky.
Sweet salutations were whispered
She smiled and lowered her veil.
Millions gathered on the bank of
the Holy Ganges to take a religious
dip with the Moon and floating diyas.
The last day of the Kumbh was
specially ordained to wash away
their sins. Coronavirus raged in
homes, hotels, sky scrapers and
hovels. Hospitals were out of beds,
doctors, nurses and life support ran dry.
Fires burned day and night in open
crematoriums. Mortals chanted the
Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for protection.
Hanuman opened his eyes and flew
across the heavens. He thought,
they only remember me on
I do not want to criticize the government, their policies, or the people who helped spread this scourge.
I am very worried. I am one of the millions who do not know when they’ll be able to see their dear ones – parents, daughter, son, grandson, brother, sister.
In the interim, I keep watching the news, donate money for COVID relief, pray to Hanuman every day.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
On May 13, after combating three waves of the coronavirus, the CDC released guidelines stating that Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in most settings, indicating that the pandemic may be near an end.
But experts at a May 14 Ethnic Media Services briefing questioned whether it was too soon to go back to normal.
“Bubbles are beautiful, but bubbles do not last long in this world,” remarked Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University. “Any vaccine bubble that may exist is going to be fragile, unfortunately.”
As Covid-19 outbreaks occur in Michigan, Florida and Puerto Rico, the AMA reports there is potential for a fourth pandemic surge.
And yes, the Indian B.1.617 variant is here, says the CDC. It’s monitoring the Indian mutation that the World Health Organization classified as “a variant of concern at a global level” because it may spread easily. According to the CDC, new mutations of the virus are more transmissible and are resistant to treatments or vaccines. These include five notable variants – B.1.1.7: (UK), B.1.351 (S. Africa), P.1 (Japan/Brazil), B.1.427 and B.1.429 (identified in CA).
Going back to normal could expose adults and children to deadly new strains of the virus and its variants, rippling across the US and elsewhere in the world.
Dr. Ben Neuman
Dr. Marc Lipsitch
Dr Rosane Guerra
Can America survive in its Covid-19 bubble?
Variants can burst our bubble said experts, voicing concerns about our vulnerability to virus mutations and the prospect of ever reaching herd immunity.
Dr. Neuman has been sequencing the virus strains in Texas, and has identified different variants thriving even locally. At the peak of Covid-19 in January, he found that 30% variants of concern were from the B.1.1.7. UK variant. By late April and early May however, he added, “every single virus …has been a variant of concern.”
The virus is changing in unexpected ways, explained Dr. Neuman, driving certain lineages of the virus out of existence. It’s a Darwinian process that showcases “an increase in viral fitness.”
But, without any checks or balances on the virus which operates on a short-term risk-reward cycle – a 6-to-8-hour timetable – scientists find it difficult to predict long-term movement.
You can trust a snake, a chicken, or a cat to act in its own best interests to the best of its ability said Dr. Neuman, but “a virus has no such impulse.” Instead, it has an evolutionary incentive that drives it not in the direction we would hope or expect, but in the direction of more severe, sustained disease.
Over time the virus will continue to mutate, and vary unpredictably, warned Dr. Neuman, and solutions will have to be updated continually.
“In this particular place and time, there is approximately a 100% chance that you will run into something that grows faster, and has the potential to spread farther, and perhaps hit harder than one would be expecting otherwise.”
The world has underestimated the virus over and over by relaxing restrictions and causing a virus resurgence, reiterated Dr. Neuman.
The question is, “Can we do the wrong things and still expect the right results?”
One outcome that scientists predict could keep the virus at bay or banished altogether is Herd Immunity, a popular concept that is mired in misconception and misunderstanding. Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, described herd immunity as a state in which completely immune completely or partially immune people in a population slow down transmission by making it impossible for the virus to pass through them from one person to another in a sustained way, “till the virus essentially goes away.”
Will vaccinations and infections create herd immunity in the current phase of the pandemic? Dr. Lipsitch believes that’s an unlikely scenario – even with the vaccines we have.
At the start of the pandemic, before lockdowns and social distancing, a person infected up to 21/2 or 3 people each. But compared to early versions of the virus, contagious new variants have increased transmissibility by up 4 to 5 persons each. To reduce transmissibility by a factor of 5, explained Dr. Lipsitch, means immunizing 80% of the population, a challenge that may be impossible given a number of factors.
At the moment, every variant in the world is present in the US. Immunizing the nation won’t be easy because vulnerable populations – especially racial/ethnic minority groups and economically and socially disadvantaged communities – lack equitable vaccine access, children under the age of 12 are ineligible, and vaccine hesitancy is prevalent.
In the US vaccine hesitancy is based on a lack of trust in its efficacy. At issue also, is that all vaccines currently available in the US do not offer 100% protection. But added Dr. Neuman, “I trust the virus less!”
While Yale Medicine rated Pfizer-BioNTech at 95% for preventing symptomatic disease, its stability depends on strict storage requirements; Moderna has a similar high efficacy of 90% upon full immunization, while the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall efficacy.
There is also concern about waning immunity and about revaccination. Limited studies that exist clarify that antibodies decrease over time, but there is uncertainty about at which point a person is no longer protected.
Annual boosters may be necessary at a minimum, confirmed Dr. Neuman, but although each of the vaccines is reasonably effective against each of the variants, there is definitely a lower effectiveness against some, like those coming out of Brazil and South Africa.
It’s more the virus changing than waning immunity that will drive the vaccination cycle.
Defanging Not Defeating the Virus
In the wake of the CDC’s new mask guidelines, Dr. Neuman noted that people calculating what precautions to take – to mask, social distance, or get vaccinated – are making decisions predicated on the original versions of the virus.
As ‘stay-at-home’ lockdown measures gradually ease, NIH reports also say that much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.
So, in the midst of an ongoing epidemic, as social barriers to transmission are lowered without reaching herd immunity, and high-risk populations in the other parts of the world face vaccine shortages, we are “in some sense “ said Dr. Lipsitch, “not ‘totally defeating, but simply defanging the virus,” – just making it less dangerous to have transmission.
He predicts “a quiet summer” followed by “some virus resurgence in the fall” as people move indoors and continue to lower their guard.
Fighting the Virus at Warp Speed
All the experts argued that the only way out of the pandemic is to ensure that more vulnerable populations across the world get vaccinated.
Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Group, called for a global response at warp speed for the world – a catalyst for more funding, sharing resources and technical assistance, more manufacturing, and a definite plan to vaccinate everyone, everywhere, with at least 8 billion doses of MRNA vaccine within a year to make up the global shortfall.
Apart from the moral argument, added Dr. Lipsitch, “we like having interactions with the rest of the world, and for all the reasons we value the rest of the world, we should value their health as well.”
Dr. Neuman called for a single global solution to vaccinate everyone within a window of six months to a year.
Maybarduk, an expert on the Covax initiative which partners with the World Health Organization to get vaccines to low-income countries by sharing vaccines equitably, pointed out that wealthy countries have purchased much of the global supply of doses in bulk, so less than 5 % of the world’s population – only 340 million (one quarter of the doses already administered in the US alone) – have been vaccinated worldwide.
In Brazil only 17% of Brazilians have been vaccinated, said Dr. Rosane Guerra from the Department of Pathology, Biological and Health Sciences Center at the Federal University of Maranhao (UFMA). Brazil does not have an adequate supply of medication to prevent or control the virus.
Covax aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the world with a 2 billion dose target for 2021 but has only been able to ship 64 million doses, stated Maybarduk. Worldwide access to vaccines is hobbled by the lack of manufacturing capacity, inefficient distribution channels, and low production volumes, access to raw materials, export controls, meeting regulatory requirements for safety and efficacy, obtaining qualifications from WHO for manufacturing facilities, and by politicians prioritizing their own citizens for vaccination first.
Sharing vaccines and vaccine knowledge (like the Trips waiver) is imperative to overcome the vaccine shortfall Maybarduk suggested, and getting vaccines to those who desperately need it in other countries..
“We should not cross our fingers and assume all is going to work out.”
Fighting the virus is like mobilizing for a world war which requires collective, integrated human effort towards achieving one goal. “I don’t think halfway solutions are going to get us there,” said Dr. Neuman. Getting to the next stage requires an integrated effort that scientists know is doable but is ultimately a political decision that world leaders must make.
“It’s impossible to have any kind of bubble in a world when people can move between countries in the middle of an epidemic. We have to close every border to control the disease,” Dr.Guerra concluded.
The bubble could burst as restrictions are relaxed before the pandemic is under control, said Dr. Neuman. “I don’t think that is the path that leads to the fastest extinction of the virus.”
“Get the vaccine, wear a mask, and when the numbers go down, then you know it’s safe to relax!”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
Many Asian Americans say – we can wear a mask to protect against Covid but how can you protect yourself against racism?
The physical assaults are the stories that show up on the news. But the mental impacts of racism have been deadly for Asian Americans. They have experienced the highest mental health distress from both the pandemic and rise of hate crimes during pandemic while they are the least likely to seek help for the same.
“There are a lot of trauma reactions, similar to PTSD symptoms. However what makes racial trauma very unique is where PTSD is post traumatic stress disorder, a lot of racial trauma is not post. There is no ending to it right now. It is past, present and ongoing. So, it makes it very unique and tricky trauma symptoms to treat sometimes.” says Linda Yoon, a therapist and the founder of Yellow Chair Collective.
For many older generation South East Asians including Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian refugee immigrant population, the recent violent crimes have triggered their PTSD symptoms that remind them of war, genocide, displacement they experienced in their home countries.
Yoon says that there are a lot of physical symptoms in this trauma, including sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, confusion, loneliness, and a lot of anxiety and depression. And a lot of anger towards the injustice that they are experiencing.
A lack of understanding of the available mental health services as well as the cultural stigma associated with it, makes it even harder to reach this community.
The concept of mental health comes from psychology, which comes from the western culture and study, says Yoon and because psychology separates mind from the physical body, it feels alien to the eastern society. “In traditional eastern medicine and wellness, they talk about yin and yang – balance which also includes balance of your body and mind. And there is no separation between body and mind.”
So a lot of times Asian Americans will complain about their mental health symptoms in their physical somatic sense. “We talk about pain in our body, we talk about anger that lives inside our body, we talk about the shoulder pain that was caused by family stress, we talk about stomach issues that have been impacted by stress and anxiety.”
To address mental health issues and reduce the stigma, more integrative holistic approaches to mental health will make more sense to Asian populations in a culturally sensitive and linguistically competent manner.
But the good news is that they do not want to “shoulder the fear burden anymore” reports Anh Do at the LA Times. At the start, they “bent to cultural tradition” and kept quiet. They were taught to keep their troubles to themselves. And they wanted to avoid attention to their families. But then as assaults increased, they started reporting and creating safety plans for their loved ones.
“They gave their children mace.” “He makes sure his phone battery is always charged ready to be used in case something happens” and he needs to record it. “Never go alone, even for the smallest errand.” “Hyper vigilance, and avoidance of places”. These are some of the strategies ordinary Asian Americans are employing to stay safe, here in America, according to Do.
The potential for bullying, stereotyping and violence is so high that Asian American parents are afraid to send their kids back to school and generally go back in public.
Who are Asian Americans Exactly?
In 1968, UC Berkeley student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” to unite the different communities of Asian descent and strategically create more political power in numbers.
Then, in the 1980s and ’90s this classification was broadened even further via the addition of Pacific Islander and creating the term Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI. While AAPI was meant to be inclusive, in reality it has often had the opposite effect.
According to Pew Research, this demographic marker includes about 19 million people, up 81 percent since 2000. 59 percent of all Asian Americans are immigrants, including 1.4 million of whom are undocumented. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in America, currently 5.6 percent of the county’s population but projected to be as much as 14 percent by 2065.
The income gaps among different Asian American ethnic groups are the widest of any racial group, and they are still growing. While Indian Americans have the highest median income of $100,000, for example, Burmese Americans have the lowest, at $36,000.By bundling over 50 ethnic groups that speak over a 100 languages under one broad AAPI banner, the aggregated data does a disservice to the individual communities.
In all these three cases, the immigrants came to the US as laborers but were framed as the source of economic problems, and in some cases public health ones, too.
The yellow peril is a racist metaphor for Asian Americans who are seen as outside threats that are invading the west with their diseases as explained by Professor Russell Jeung, Chair & Professor, Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, at a USC Center for Health Journalism webinar titled “What Anti-Asian Hate Means for Mental Health, Safety and Justice.”
The “model minority” trope that suggests that all Asian Americans are well off, hardworking and successful and pit them against other minorities “masks the inequalities that Asian Americans face. The yellow peril is much more operative” suggests Professor Jeung, one of the founders of STOPAAPIHATE.org.
“Sometimes when we are on the inside, we are model minorities, we are white adjacent, we are crazy rich Asians. But in times of war, such as Japanese incarceration, or what happened to South Asian muslims and Arab Americans with islamophobia – in times of economic downturn and in times of pandemic, Asian Americans are framed as perpetual foreigners, or outsiders who don’t belong” says Professor Jeung.
Time and again, when diseases come from Asia, says Professor Jeung, “Asian Americans are perceived as the source of the diseases, policies seek to exclude them, and Asian Americans are met with interpersonal violence.”
AAPI Hate Crime on the Rise
#stopAAPIhate website tracker was created to collect individual reports, to document the issue, to figure out what’s happening, to track trends, and to provide policy interventions. The hate and anger directed against Asians was appalling, up to 100 incidents a day and that surge has continued.
Asian Americans report everything from being barred from ride shares, to being coughed and spat on, their businesses being shunned, their elderly being shoved and kicked, their children being bullied in person and online, racial epithets and slurs and the ever common curse – “go back to China”.
Almost unanimously, respondents named racism as their biggest stressor and greatest fear during the pandemic. Asian Americans are more concerned about other American’s hate than they are of a pandemic that has killed over half a million Americans. That’s how widespread and traumatizing the racism is.
Here in the Bay Area, there were higher incidents of hate crime against Asians in the beginning of the pandemic. This is likely because Northern California, more dependent on public transportation, the likelihood of different communities and different cultures interacting with one another is greater versus Southern California, which is very steeped in the car culture.
Help is At Hand
In Oakland, a volunteer service has been activated where a volunteer comes within 10-15 minutes of a call to accompany you to the bus stop, help you to a grocery store or back to your home.
Professor Jeung is angry and sad and distressed about the state of America although he is heartened that the Asian American community is standing up and “seeing our community really mobilize and working in unity with other allies.”
But he questions what healing looks like? And “as we experience racism, we might become racists – how do I stop this within my own self and how do I stop this for my students? What prescriptions do we have for our society so that we can stop that cycle of violence and racism?”
These are questions that do not have easy answers for us in the South Asian community either. Many of us faced stigmatization and violence in the aftermath of 9-11 but how do we become better allies and show support to our discriminated Asian brethren now?
A simple check up on your Asian American friends and neighbors, says Yoon, will go a long way. Her patients report feeling invisible and alone. Other strategies include intervening if you can when you see an incident, report what is happening and donate when you can.
Words matter, says Professor Jeung as the world watched Trump’s hate speech about the “China Virus” going viral, and normalizing hate towards the Asian American community. “We need official statements to normalize love and respect. It is sort of obvious but it is really needed.”
So, whatever organization you belong to or work at, pressure them to put out official statements about supporting the AAPI community because it helps them be seen and heard and acknowledge their pain and suffering.
President Biden’s new actions to respond to the increase in acts of anti-Asian violence have been celebrated in the community as a movement in the right direction. But in order to address the root case will require “ more education, more expanded civil rights protections and more restorative justice models”, says Professor Jeung.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents
In a packed hall on one Sunday evening at the India Community Center-Milpitas here in the heart of Silicon Valley, South Asian folks of all ages sit in their traditional outfits and wildly cheer the naanis and naanas on the stage as they do an energetic “Jollywood” dance number to the song, Dus Bahane.
Naani-ma Pushpanjali Gangishetti, 74, in a bright sari, matching jewelry and barefooted, shakes her hips with gusto, one arm bent seductively behind her head, the other extended in the air in front of her, a broad smile on her face.
She clearly looked like she was enjoying the spotlight provided at the India Community Center’s (ICC) annual fund-raising gala. Ditto for at least a dozen other seniors who shared the stage with her, the men wearing fancy kurta-pyjamas, the women in sequined outfits, which anyone could see were tailored for the young at heart.
To an onlooker, it’s obvious why they call themselves the “Jollywood dancers.”
“I never thought that slipping into our dancing shoes and moving our legs would bring about such a change in us,” said 78-year-old Kanti Patel on a recent day, recalling that evening, as well as the continuing weekly dance sessions at the ICC.
He said he and his wife, Champa, have been taking full advantage of all the cultural activities the ICC offers seniors – singing, dancing, mono acting, doing yoga, aerobics, playing bridge, or simply shooting the breeze with their peers. “What we do here are wonderful stress busters.”
Indeed, it has been long documented that physical activity, especially dancing and singing, can positively affect elderly people’s bodies and minds, leading to better cardiovascular health, fewer migraine headaches, and a sharper brain.
“Music and dance create new networks in the brain,” explained India-born neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese, lead author of a continuing study on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
The study explored how dance and music slowed down cognitive decline in older people. It found that dancing helps prevent both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, the next most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s.
Turns out, “all activities related to music can be beneficial to people,” noted Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Brain Health, and Executive Director of the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Engaging in music “is a powerful way to stimulate your brain.”
The meeting was held online because of the COVID pandemic.
She cited recent findings by the GCBH that showed that music impacts all regions of the brain and causes them to work together. It releases dopamine, an important brain chemical that influences one’s mood and feelings of reward and motivation. And the music that’s “meaningful to the individual is likely to have a greater dopamine response,” she said.
Lock said 20 to 40 percent of dementia could be reduced or delayed through changing modifiable lifestyle factors. Music can encourage healthy behaviors that can reduce your risk of dementia. So what kind of music should seniors, who had perhaps previously largely limited themselves to bathroom singing, or not sung at all, engage in?
“It’s all about individual choices and preferences,” Lock said, noting, “Any style or type of music can be beneficial for the brain.”
According to the GCBH report, there is evidence to suggest that music that is meaningful to the individual is likely to cause the strongest brain response and dopamine release, while at the same time new music can stimulate the brain and provide a new source of pleasure.
A 90-year-old woman (whose family did not want her to be identified) stricken with dementia had started showing little interest in her surroundings and sometimes even in family members who visited her. But whenever she heard her favorite songs of yesteryears, she would quickly brighten up, said a relative.
People who use music to connect with people understand why that medium is so important for people like this woman. Linda McNair, a board-certified music therapist at a senior facility in Missouri, is quoted as saying that when people with dementia engage with music, “they don’t dwell on other anxieties.”
Of the 11 different physical activities the Einstein team studied, social dance was the only one associated with less dementia risk – possibly because it is a complex activity. It demands sustained mental effort to master new steps.
That meant, it is not a one-and-done thing. “It has to be ongoing therapy,” Lock said.
Among the people who participated in the Einstein aging study, those who danced frequently – three or four times a week– showed 76 percent less incidence of dementia than those who danced only once a week.
Many people who dread exercising are more likely to use dancing as a way of overall physical improvement. While most exercises tend to use repetitive motions that may be found boring, dancing uses a wide variety of movements and has the additional advantage of social interaction with different people, Verghese said. As a result, it can provide greater self-confidence and self-esteem, enhance a general sense of wellbeing, and lead to more active social relationships.
Verghese, who is in his 50s, confessed he’s no fan of exercise, perhaps because of its repetitive motions. Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, with its wide variety of movements, is something he has embraced. It has helped his overall physical wellbeing, he said.
Music beneficial for Parkinson’s Disease
Neurologists say that music and dance can benefit the gait and balance of people with Parkinson’s disease and slow its march, possibly because they stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are reduced in people with the disease. Singing uses the same muscle groups for swallowing and breathing, functions that are impacted as the disease advances.
After being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, a middle-aged techie in the Silicon Valley, who wished to remain anonymous, has become even more serious about learning Carnatic music, with its high-speed variations of pitch, unity of raga and tala, all of which he believes have helped slow down the advancement of the disease.
Verghese said the social and emotional elements of dancing and music are especially beneficial for Indian American seniors, particularly those who have migrated to the United States in their later years. For many of them, cultural and language barriers, as well as lack of mobility, have limited their social interactions in their adoptive countries.
That does not mean that while living in India they all had the mental stimulation older people need to keep their brains from cognitive decline, noted Sunitha Ramakrishnan, who manages the senior programs at the Mid-Peninsula chapter of the ICC.
“There is no way older people in India could do all the activities they so freely do here” without inviting criticism from their friends and family members, said Ramakrishnan, adding, “Singing perhaps yes, but dancing no.”
Shakuntala Saini, a widow of eight years, echoed this view. “In India, if I said I’m 78, people will simply say, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ ”
The ICC has a total of 600 senior members in its four centers – located in Milpitas, Cupertino, Mid-Peninsula, and Tri-Valley. The average age of the members is 70. Some drive themselves to the centers, others get dropped off at the center by family members, and some others use county-funded car services for a nominal cost of $2 per ride.
The COVID lockdown has not stopped them from accessing the social activities they enjoyed prior to the stay-at-home orders, noted ICC’s chief executive officer Raj Desai. As the lockdown began, ICC volunteers gave them a Zoom 101 course and they were off and running.
“In fact, there is more attendance in the classes now” than before the lockdown, noted Ramakrishnan.
On a recent day, Sunaina Jain, in her late 60s, was at a Zoom practice session with 27 other seniors at the class taught by Bollywood dance teacher Neetu Arora of the Mona Khan Dance Company.
“Come on Sunaina Aunty, arms down, hip-hip,” Arora coaxes, demonstrating what needed to be done. In Bollywood dance, she tells the students, “arm angles are really important.”
It’s Christmas Eve at the ICC and once again the stage is awash with colorful lehenga-cholis, salwar kameezes, and saris. The seniors are strutting their stuff through music and dance.
All of them hid the little aches and pains that come with advancing years. There was Indu Chabbra, 70, a widow and legally blind, doing her thing in a lehenga-choli.
Gangishetti, a widow of two years, is determined not to let her artificial knees keep her from having a blast.
“They tell me that dancing has given them a sense of accomplishment and built up their confidence,” said Ishika Seth, who is a professional dancer from the Mona Khan Dance Company and has been volunteering at the ICC for the last 10 years.
Viji Sundaram wrote this article for India Currents with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation.
If you think vaccination is an ordeal now, consider the 18th-century version. After having pus from a smallpox boil scratched into your arm, you would be subject to three weeks of fever, sweats, chills, bleeding and purging with dangerous medicines, accompanied by hymns, prayers and hell-fire sermons by dour preachers.
That was smallpox vaccination, back then. The process generally worked and was preferred to enduring “natural” smallpox, which killed around a third of those who got it. Patients were often grateful for trial-by-immunization — once it was over, anyway.
“Thus through the Mercy of God, I have been preserved through the Distemper of the Small Pox,” wrote one Peter Thatcher in 1764, after undergoing the process in a Boston inoculation hospital. “Many and heinous have been my sins, but I hope they will be washed away.”
Today, Americans are once again surprisingly willing, even eager, to suffer a little for the reward of immunity from a virus that has turned the world upside down.
Roughly half of those vaccinated with the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, and in particular women, experience unpleasantness, from hot, sore arms to chills, headache, fever and exhaustion. Sometimes they boast about the symptoms. They often welcome them.
Suspicion about what was in the shots grew in the mind of Patricia Mandatori, an Argentine immigrant in Los Angeles, when she hardly felt the needle going in after her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a March appointment.
A day later, though, with satisfaction, she “felt like a truck hit me,” Mandatori said. “When I started to feel rotten I said, ‘Yay, I got the vaccination.’ I was happy. I felt relieved.”
While the symptoms show your immune system is responding to the vaccine in a way that will protect against disease, evidence from clinical trials showed that people with few or no symptoms were also protected. Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel bad, the experts say.
“This is the first vaccine in history where anyone has ever complained about not having symptoms,” said immunologist Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
But that doesn’t mean people who don’t react to the vaccine severely are less protected, said Dr. Joanna Schaenman, an expert on infectious diseases and the immunology of aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. While the symptoms of illness are undoubtedly part of the immune response, the immune response that counts is protection, she said. “That is preserved across age groups and likely to be independent of whether you had local or systemic side effects or not.”
The immune system responses that produce post-vaccination symptoms are thought to be triggered by proteins called toll-like receptors, which reside on certain immune cells. These receptors are less functional in older people, who are also likely to have chronic, low-grade activation of their immune systems that paradoxically mutes the more rapid response to a vaccine.
But other parts of their immune systems are responding more gradually to the vaccine by creating the specific types of cells needed to protect against the coronavirus. These are the so-called memory B cells, which make antibodies to attack the virus, and “killer T cells” that track and destroy virus-infected cells.
Many other vaccines, including those that prevent hepatitis B and bacterial pneumonia, are highly effective while having relatively mild side effect profiles, Schaenman noted.
Whether you have a strong reaction to the vaccine “is an interesting but, in a sense, not vital question,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The bottom line, he said: “Don’t worry about it.”
There was a time when doctors prescribed cod-liver oil and people thought medicine had to taste bad to be effective. People who get sick after covid vaccination “feel like we’ve had a tiny bit of suffering, we’ve girded our loins against the real thing,” said Schaenman (who had a slight fever). “When people don’t have the side effects, they feel they’ve been robbed” of the experience.
Still, side effects can be a hopeful sign, especially when they end, says McCarty Memorial Christian Church leader Eddie Anderson, who has led efforts to vaccinate Black churchgoers in Los Angeles. He helps them through the rocky period by reminding them of the joyful reunions with children and grandchildren that will be possible post-vaccination.
“I’m a Christian pastor,’’ he said. “I tell them, ‘If you make it through the pain and discomfort, healing is on the other side. You can be fully human again.”
In traditional South Asian families, women trapped in abusive situations don’t leave for fear of societal scorn.
“What will people say?”
Our social structure, based on arranged marriages and multi-generational households, regard family as sacrosanct – staying intact is prioritized over individual wellbeing.
“Culturally in the AAPI community, …victims may be encouraged to stay in their situations for their families, for their communities, for the larger family,” said Monica Khant, at an April 23 EMS briefing on domestic violence (DV).
“That was something I had seen first-hand, that leaving their situation might being shame or embarrassment to the family.”
So, victims stay to avoid disrupting family dynamics, losing status, financial security, or children, but mainly because they have very few alternatives.
But during the pandemic, quarantining at home with an abusive partner because of stay-at-home orders, has made a difficult situation even worse for DV survivors. In fact, studies by the NIH reported increasing risk of family violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that “domestic abuse is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”
According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing some form of IPV each year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the country are reporting an alarming upward trend in domestic violence.
By March 2020, compared to March 2019, calls reporting DV increased by 18 % (San Antonio Police Department), 27% (Jefferson County Alabama) and 10% (New York City Police Department).
DV rates have spiked among women of color and immigrants who face additional structural and cultural challenges trying to access support from the government and community, even before the pandemic.
Narika, a 30-year-old, Fremont-based, domestic violence advocacy group with 90 % of South Asian clients connected to the Bay Area, reported a 3x increase in DV calls since the pandemic began, while the API-GBV has found that 64% of Indian and Pakistani women had reported intimate partner violence IPV.
Yet fewer survivors are calling for help despite being trapped at home in abusive situations. At API-GBV which recorded a 76% drop in calls and in people seeking shelters, Khant explained that survivors are unable to access phones or information on computers, so less calls are coming in for assistance.
You Can’t Tell the Police!
In South Asian communities, inaction and compliance by DV survivors has its roots in a patriarchal society which views DV as a taboo subject. Though we worship goddesses and powerful female icons (Mother India, Kali), female stereotypes in secondary roles to men are equally revered (dutiful, submissive, wives like Parvati, Draupadi), and DV remains a systemic, pervasive issue. Families are expected to stay intact. In fact, by raising awareness, Narika has been accused of breaking up families and planting ideas in survivors to move out.
Bindu Fernandes, the Executive Director of Narika explained that survivors don’t want to ‘out’ their family.
Survivors who reach out will say,
“I don’t want to cause any trouble, but if I die, I just want someone to know what’s happened,” and, “I’m probably going to be pushed down some stairs so I want somebody to know that could happen,”, and unequivocally add,
‘BUT YOU CAN’T TELL THE POLICE.’
In many cases in South Asian community says Fernandes, this is the story.
Findings from an ATASK (Asian Family Violence Report: South Asian) survey in Boston supports her claim. In the survey, 44% percent of South Asians said they knew a woman who has been physically abused or injured by her partner. Yet 5% of male and female respondents said that a woman who is being abused should not tell anyone about the abuse. Even though they overwhelmingly endorsed battered women seeking help – from a friend 82%, the police (74%), a family member (66%), a shelter (50%) or a therapist (48%); in reality, very few women from their communities actually do.
Their dependency and passivity, steeped in inflexible tradition, propels a vicious cycle of IPV and in-law violence.
Cultural norms and traditional roles force women to stay silent. Attitudes expressed in the ATASK focus group convey the insular mindset within South Asian families which prohibit survivors from coming forward and seeking help. Focus group members felt that the woman in a marriage becomes the property of her husband and no longer belongs to her parents. The group felt that in-laws play a critical role in ‘family violence’ within South Asian families especially in cases of dowry disputes. A woman cannot turn to her own family for help once she is married and parents are not supposed to intervene in the daughter’s marriage. Sometimes parents don’t take divorced daughters back.
Survivors face challenges accessing assistance because of a complex mix of family dynamics, immigration status, cultural mores, lack of English proficiency and technology access, and financial dependence.
In the AAPI community, when survivors with limited English proficiency call law enforcement, said Khant, the officer may speak to the abusive partner who has the dominant English proficiency which enables them to control the narrative. The same language access issue applies when survivors who seek help from medical or hospital facilities need interpreters; having to rely on translation services adds time to getting the attention they need, so sometimes they just may not go. In Brooklyn for example, a nurse said it took over an hour to get a translator for a survivor who used a less mainstream Asian language.
Women who do not have valid immigration status or are on temporary status are not eligible for assistance, for example, even Covid19 testing.
In the Bay Area, many immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. When the Trump administration revoked their EAD 4 work permits, they lost their right to work and experienced increasing abuse, domestic servitude, and financial dependency.
Khant said that for AAPI community members who work in the service industry, the loss of jobs and lack of work increased financial dependency on abusive partner who is earning income, a key factor in DV survivors not being able to leave. Some of the immigrant DV survivors are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they don’t have valid work authorization permits and may not be allowed to apply for other benefits
Survivors who have lost jobs face eviction. According to the Census Bureau’s housing survey added Khant, 1 in 5 Asian renters reported that they were behind in rent payment as of September 2020. This forces DV survivors to stay with partners in violent and unsafe situations because they cannot afford to pay back rent. Narika said they issued $50,000 in cash assistance requests to survivors in the past year.
Transnational abandonment is the new manifestation of DV inflicted on immigrant women already besieged by the pandemic and loss of EAD-4 work permits. Narika reports 2 to 3 cases of transnational abandonment a week, where vulnerable immigrant women are abandoned in their country of origin by their husbands. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the SA community, in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation. Once they are deliberately removed from the US, these disposable women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and even children. Narika reports an instance where a woman was dropped off at a grocery store and never saw her husband again.
There is no accountability as courts do not prosecute perpetrators or accept cases when victims are absent. Narika reports that abusers take advantage of differences in laws governing marriage and assets between the US and the victim’s country of origin. Nor is help available through VAWA which has few protections for abandoned victims who don’t reside in the US.
Where do we go next?
While there is a compelling need for broader language service access and more food pantry and housing relief, there’s a growing demand from South Asian families about addressing DV outside the traditional systems in place.
Khant’s work has involved observing existing laws (or a lack of laws and assistance in place during certain administrations), and recognizing the nuances in immigrant cases related to the legal system of DV. But first, she said, we need to acknowledge biases in responses to communities of color. In the land of opportunity with its many resources for DV survivors, Khant suggested a new approach is necessary to address DV in the South Asian community.
Traditionally DV survivors have been encouraged to follow the traditional systems in place – law enforcement, justice system, filing a complaint and following through with the courts.
But the pandemic has made it difficult for families to seek help from law enforcement or the justice system, so many families would rather go a new route to find resolution. At Narika, Bindu Fernandes shares that restorative justice is one approach that could form a pathway to helping families heal.
“DV is a delicate subject because it involves intimate relationships, family secrets, and it’s a subject many of us are reluctant to raise either publicly or in private. It’s embarrassing, sometimes even shameful to talk about. But we also know that staying silent (about the topic), won’t make it go away. Suffering in silence makes people give up….lose hope,” remarked Sandy Close, EMS Director, at the briefing.
Khant said her experience as an immigration attorney shows that, “If divorce or leaving the abusive situation is not the first choice, it’s the choice survivors only take after many attempts at reconciliation.”
Using social services or less criminally endorsed systems, “may get better traction in AAPI community,” said Khant, and help families find a path to reconciliation.
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.