Tag Archives: lockdown

Publisher Vandana Kumar and Managing Director Vijay Rajvaidya, traveling to India.

Experiencing Two Lockdowns: Traveling to India During a Pandemic

My mother lives in Jamshedpur, India. I live in San Jose, California. For the past many years, my siblings and I have made multiple trips to Jamshedpur every year to spend time with our mother.

And then 2020 hit and travel came to a screeching halt.

Just like a lot of you, I have navigated these uncertain times seeking clarity on what was appropriate, what was safe, what was responsible. When COVID cases seemed to have declined sufficiently, Vijay and I decided to travel to India once again. We read extensively about the new travel guidelines, spoke with friends and family in India about COVID norms. 

Then COVID cases started exploding in India. We were in a quandary – although we were now vaccinated, should we still make this trip or postpone it? When would be a good time for this? Realizing that no one could give us any definite answers – we decided to move ahead with our travels as planned.

Since I’ve arrived here I’ve been asked by dozens of friends about my travel experience, so I decided to document some useful tips for travelers to India:

Before the start of travel

(i) Passengers need to have a negative RT-PCR COVID test (not antigen test) report in order to board flights to India. The test must be done NO MORE THAN 72 hours before the start of travel. This is important. Make sure and schedule this ahead of time.

You may not have a reliable internet connection when you land, so make a hard copy of the report and have it handy. 

(ii) Fill out the Air Suvidha self-declaration form, mandatory for all international travelers to India. You will need to upload a soft copy in pdf format for yourself and the rest of your travel party. You need to submit only one form for the whole family. 

Make sure you print and carry a hard copy of this form and carry it with your passport, VISA/OCI.

During the flight:

I had booked a direct flight from San Francisco to Ranchi on United, so was able to check in the baggage all the way to my final destination.

Passengers and flight crew were masked for the entire flight. Crew reminded folks to wear the masks even while sleeping. Sanitizers were available for all. We felt safe.

Tips:

(i) Wear masks that are comfortable for the long haul

(ii) Fill out the disembarkation card before landing

Vijay Rajvaidya
Vijay checking out the snacks at the airport lounge

Arriving in India:

We were pleasantly surprised to see that everyone at Delhi airport was masked – airport staff, officers, passengers

Upon disembarking: we had to show proof of the COVID test at two separate desks, staffed by two different entities. We were not sure who they were, but our boarding passes were stamped by each.

At the immigration counter: We were asked for our stamped boarding passes, Disembarkation card, Passports, OCI cards, and the Air Suvidha form. 

By the time we were done with immigration and arrived at the baggage claim, the baggage had been removed off the carousels and lined up for passengers. I was rather shocked at the speed with which this had happened!

Customs: this channel is usually open, but this time there was a queue, so it took a few minutes to walk out and into the domestic transfer area at T3.

Transfer to domestic: Those who have traveled through T3 know this – this is the most ridiculous design for an international airport like Delhi! There is ONE elevator that takes ALL international passengers transferring to the domestic terminal on T3. The signage in this area is nonexistent, so you have to ask folks staffing the counters. 

There was much confusion about where to drop off our baggage, but eventually, we found the right queue. We were disappointed that we could not just drop off the luggage but had to line up for check-in by Vistara yet again along with all other passengers. We pointed out that we were already checked in, had our boarding passes, and just needed to drop off the luggage – but it was of no use. There was no convenient drop-off or handover organized by Vistara.

Vandana & her Mom
After a LONG journey, Vandana gets to hug her mom

Waiting at the airport: There are several lounges on the domestic terminal and we made our way to the Plaza Premium Lounge that has a partnership up with Vistara. Seats were blocked to create distancing inside the lounge. We rested there till it was time to board the next flight. We felt safe.

So after a 16-hour flight from San Francisco, a 6-hour wait at Delhi airport, a 2-hour flight to Ranchi, followed by a 2.5-hour drive to Jamshedpur – I was finally able to hug my mom – masked!!

UPDATE: It’s been a week since I got here and today the Jharkhand State government has announced a “Complete Lockdown.” As someone who experienced “Shelter in Place” in California last year, I know what that means. I just didn’t think that I’d experience this in two countries. 

The US says that one should not travel to India right now. But I’m already here. I’m considering what I should do now. Follow my Facebook profile for developments.


Vandana Kumar has been serving as the Publisher of India Currents since 2004.


 

A Tale of Two Sumi(s) – When COVID19 Flatlined the Desi Beauty Business

Sumi Patel opened Sumi Beauty in 2007 and ran a thriving cosmetology business

Sumi Beauty Salon in Mountain View

on El Camino in Mountain View for more than 13 years. A single mom with two children, Sumi built a steady stream of customers seeking beauty treatments designed with desi clientele in mind. On offer were services like threading, waxing, skincare, and facials, as well as special heritage henna treatments and make-up for brides to be.  Her salon was popular.

“I’ve been going here for over a year and have always been so pleased with the results! The women who work here….both do great jobs at the Indian beauty salon,” says a testimonial on her website.

As Sumi’s clients became regulars, she hired an aesthetician to help with the increased workload.

And then the pandemic hit. On March 15, 2020, Sumi Beauty shut down as Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic regulations were enforced, flatlining Sumi Patel’s source of livelihood.

In Southern California, Sumita Batra, the CEO of a successful, family-run chain of beauty studios called Ziba Beauty, made a tough decision even before Newsom issued his statewide lockdown orders. She shuttered all 14 branches of her stores and laid off her entire team of 144 employees so they could file for unemployment benefits. Batra used her personal savings to fund their final paychecks and to keep her business afloat.

Threading service at Ziba Beauty

As the pandemic placed communities of color under siege, minority-owned small businesses like the ones run by Sumi Patel and Sumita Batra were among the hardest hit.

While workers of color were impacted by job losses, women’s job losses were significantly higher than men’s, reported Chad Stone, Chief Economist at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), at an ethnic media press briefing on March 12. Stone co-authored a study which found that “Workers born abroad, especially women, were more likely to work in the industries hit hardest by the pandemic and have suffered disproportionate job losses.”

For both Sumi(s), the impact of losing a lifetime of work was devastating.

Ziba Beauty had been in business for 33 years since it first opened shop in Artesia, CA.  It had served more than forty-five thousand customers out of its 14 studios. Batra describes the experience of closing her stores as going “into a complete meltdown.” Losing her business felt “like losing a family member.”

Sumita Batra, CEO, Ziba Beauty

Batra applied for PPP funds “using every contact in her book and everything in her power,” but it still took several weeks to arrive.

In Mountain View, Patel negotiated a deal with her landlord to pay a lower rental rate to tide her over the pandemic and applied for a loan from the Paycheck Protection program for Small Businesses.

“But my business is very small, so I did not get that much,” said Patel, who had to let her aesthetician go.

One year after the pandemic hit, the business has dwindled at Sumi Beauty. Before the pandemic, Patel would see at up to 20 to 25 customers a day. “Today, I saw one person,” she notes, after which she waited for 3 hours for a walk-in customer. Customers aren’t calling to make appointments Patel added. She does not understand why.  On weekends, business picks up a little. “Maybe I’ll have 4 or 5 customers.”

Her salon can only accommodate one person at a time, as pandemic restrictions are still in place.

She briefly reopened last year when restrictions were lifted before shutting down again as infections rose. “My business is reduced to only 10% of what it was before the pandemic. We’re not back to 100 %. This whole year has been very hard.”

Ziba Beauty remained closed, announcing that its priority was the safety of customers and employees.

In March 2021 Biden signed off on the ‘American Rescue Plan Act’ -a  $1.9 Trillion COVID Relief Bill which the CBPP predicts will help millions and bolster the economy.

Chad Stone reports that the coronavirus relief package and its new round of stimulus payments are aimed at “getting the virus under control,” so that life can get back to normal, reducing the levels of hardship many Americans have endured over the past year, and which has been particularly acute among people of color and immigrants.” It will provide a stimulus for an economic recovery that had stalled “only halfway back to full employment,” he added.

But the Congressional Budget Office projects that the economy won’t return to its full potential until 2025. Today’s labor market, says the CBPP analysis, is much weaker than the headline numbers suggest.

According to the CBPP, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently testified that “The economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain. . . . There is a long way to go.”

Sumi Batra agrees.

“Touch services coming back too soon will be one of the things that end up spreading COVID.”

At the risk of losing her 33-year-old brand after shutting down last year, Batra was adamant that she would not reopen until it was safe to do so. “I’m not going to feel comfortable opening up my stores and risking my team as well as my customers.”

Touch services like threading operate in ‘intimate spaces’ says Batra, where aesthetician and client sit in close contact. So a ‘phased opening is the right approach’ because a threading artist works differently from a hairdresser.

Unlike e-commerce companies, touch service industries need a phased reopening to facilitate a safe recovery post pandemic. Batra is calling for a separate stimulus for the beauty and nail industries, and suggests they need to come together to create a recovery plan that will ensure the safety of practitioners and clients.

Sumi Patel says though her salon now is fully open her customers are ‘scared to come back,’ even though she has implemented health and safety changes. When threading eyebrows on a customer, for example, she wears a mask and anchors the thread around her neck instead of holding it in her mouth, which is the traditional technique. She attributes the drop in clients to the fact that many of her customers from the IT industry, may not need beauty services now that many work from home, do not socialize, or travel.

At Ziba Beauty which has gradually reopened about 6 stores, Batra is using  PPE and stringent safety measures. At the start of each day, each studio is thoroughly sterilized by a UVC robot, and bookings, payments, check-in and check out are contactless.

For Sumi Patel who has two kids to support, the loss of income has been a challenge

“Right now it’s a tough time. My only hope is that my business will come back – I hope.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

Anjana Nagarajan Butaney contributed to this report.


 

Covid-19 Blues: Was It Love or Lust?

Based on a true story…

After a really long time, I fell in love with my mirror. When I stood in front of it yesterday in my black top, I saw a radiant and gorgeous girl. Yes, a girl; a mixture of sweet and saucy, and not a woman. That’s how I would like to describe myself these days. But I guess my girlishness bloomed after the first lockdown was announced in March of last year. 

Soon after its announcement, the guy living in the next-door flat fled to another place, leaving the entire balcony to me, prancing amidst my aloe vera plant growing out from a large pot in profusion. As my neighbors grew tired of being locked up in rooms, they slowly started coming out in balconies. Some of them waved, greeted, and smiled for the first time. Among these were a few that I had never set my eyes on before. Covid-19 was finally bringing the community together in an unexpected way. 

I spotted a guy with a beard practicing arm exercises one late afternoon on the balcony, sometime in April, while I was watering my plants. His was the flat next to the one opposite mine; he waved and smiled. I waved back. A few days later more waving and more smiling followed and we tried to communicate using signs from our respective balconies.

After this, meetings took place regularly on the road running along the backside of my flat inside my Delhi colony. It is a beautiful spot for late afternoon walks in the summer, lined with tall trees on both sides. I had spent many moments on my own musing on its beauty and humming to myself “I walk a lonely road”. On this road, I walked listening to music on my phone while he paced up and down in his gym vest. At times, we would stop and exchange a few pleasantries. 

I thanked my stars for sending me this new diversion during such a difficult time. I dreaded calling my mum for she always fretted and worried. On top of this, too much work burden made me morose at times.

One night after 10 pm, he suddenly called me and demanded to meet at the same spot. It was a silent and dark night with silence weighing heavily all around. The oppressive April heat made my face mask cling to my sweaty face. Not the best romantic situation, but still it couldn’t be helped. We started sauntering and he described his experiences at the hospital (he was a trainee doctor) and I remarked on his bravery. The guy, then, suddenly knelt down on the road and I kind of blushed. His next words were so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. “Will you accept my jujubes? I had kept them in the fridge and thought of gifting you today.”

Before I could say something, the night security guard came running and dispersed us, saying the new rule demands people should not come of their homes late at night in view of the pandemic. I did not accept the jujubes and we ran to our places with the guard at our heels.

Reflecting on the incident later, I felt that my vanity was hurt. He wanted me to accept his jujubes after all and not him. What an immature boy he must be, I decided, and sort of cooled off towards him. Phone calls and balcony meetings became less frequent.

Around this time, a writer entered my life via social media, and that’s pretty common these days, isn’t it? I have always been partial towards poets and writers, and to top it all, this man was super hot. The man-boy doctor soon faded away. Perhaps his biggest fault was he never once complimented me. On the other hand, the writer called me wild and sexy. Needless to say, I was blooming under his compliments. 

Soon I discovered my naughty side. I started flooding his phone with my glam pictures wearing makeup and clicked in low light. The lockdown made me experimental and bolder with my clicks. Soon love talks followed, romantic chats filled up my FB messenger, and the doctor guy permanently exited from life. He called a few times but I kind of avoided talking. One fine day in November last year, I discovered the doctor was gone from the neighborhood. I also realized I hadn’t even saved his number. He was sweet and innocent and brought in his wake a taste of budding childhood romance. My girlish side misses him at times. 

Ironically, I haven’t met the writer guy yet and don’t think a meeting is likely in the near future. He is too mature and aloof, but he brought out my wilder side. Come to think of it now, both were good short-time romances or whatever you call it and helped brighten up the stressful Covid-19 period. I am too much into myself these days to bother trying to put things into place anymore. I have put away my heart in a locker where it will remain, Covid-19 or no Covid-19. 


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

Featured Image shot in Hyderabad by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

California Nani: A Video a Day Keeps The Doctors Away

In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.

Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.

She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many. 

For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones! 

When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness. 

Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life. 

Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever. 

A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase. 

When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day. 

The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.

More details at YouTube channel – California Nani! 


 Anu Sharma teaches, travels, writes, volunteers and lives in San Francisco, CA.

Unlocked: Eight Monologues. One Lockdown

The lockdown has affected us in different ways – introspective, illuminating, irritating, igniting, isolating. Needless to say, we’ll never be the same again. So, why not combine theatre with technology and capture our lives during the lockdown. EnActe Arts attempts to do just that by bringing together India’s finest actors, most talented playwrights, and some of our best-known directors. 

They, through their diverse stories, give us a tongue-in-cheek perspective on how 150 days of solitude shaped their lives. The eight monologues in Hindi and English vary from the hilarious to the heartwarming, from eureka moments to experiential thoughts. From conversations to unseen companions to stream of consciousness bursts of solo thought.

Enjoy the ride and stay for the talkbacks!

THE MONOLOGUES (All times PST)

  • Fri Jan 8 – 5:30 p.m. 8:30 p.m.
    Sat Jan 9 – 5:30 p.m.
    Sun Jan 10 – 5:30 p..m
    Tickets: $15 
  • For Age: 16+
  • Language: English & Hindi
  • Duration: 90 min (with interval)

AAWAZEIN (Hindi)

Written by Purva Naresh; directed by Rajit Kapur; performed by Seema Biswas

A concerned mother tries to reach out to her daughter in a big city. 

BRAND NEW WORLD (English) 

Written by Adhir Bhat; directed by Q; performed by Veronica Gautam

A hospital intern tries to explain the meaning of lockdown to a patient just out of a coma.

CHAMGAADAD KA INTEQAAM (Hindi) 

Written & performed by Raghav Dutt; directed by Sukant Goel

As Lockdown 1.0 begins, forced to stay back in the madarsa, a young, wayward boy finds his own way to battle both, the pandemic and his fear.

HAAN NANDUBHAI (English)

Written by Rahul da Cunha; directed by Gurleen Judge; performed by Aahana Kumra

A young actress, trapped inside her Goregaon flat feels the effects of the lockdown, her lack of starring roles and pangs of loneliness.

HAWALDAR HAWA SINGH HAAZIR HAI! (Hindi) 

Written by Ashok Mishra; directed by Rajit Kapur; performed by Gagan Dev Riar

An exasperated Hawaldar tries hard to convince people to stay at home.

I’M LOBO LOBO, MEN (English)

Written by Rahul da Cunha, directed by Nadir Khan, performed by Joy Fernandes

A satellite cable repair guy visits the home of a very fussy, CoVid- paranoid couple during lockdown, with hilarious consequences.

MIDDLE CLASS (Hindi)

Written & performed by Hussain Dalal; directed by Akarsh Khurana

A Corona warrior shares his experience as a compounder in a quarantine center and the friendships he made there that changed his life. 

RAASHAN (Hindi)

Written by Abhishek Majumdar; directed by Anand Tiwari; performed by Rajit Kapur 

An upper middle-class man visits the slum in his area to borrow alcohol from his friend.  The piece deals with the relative value of hunger, thirst, and poetry.


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: mona@indiacurrents.com

Why Men are Angry and Women Abused

What was startling about the two domestic violence (DV) videos that aired recently on TV and on social media was not just their disturbing subject matter featuring battered women, but the frequency with which such content appears on the news during this pandemic.

On TV recently, a PSA created by a DV support group shows a woman raising her folded fist on a video call with a friend, silently signaling an appeal for help without raising the suspicions of a man behind her in the room.

And in a real life incident in the UK reported by the BBC, an injured woman used a silent code (55) on a 999 emergency call to alert authorities of an attack where she was unable to speak.

Both videos reflect the rise in DV incidents this year in the aftermath of COVID lockdowns, which have forced vulnerable women into dangerous proximity with abusive partners.  As more people stay at home due to the pandemic, the risk of domestic violence (sexual, verbal and physical abuse) is increasing say experts.

In a recent report, The New England Journal of Medicine described domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV) as a ‘pandemic within a pandemic’. According to their research, many IPV victims are trapped with their abusers by stay-at-home orders intended to protect the public from the spread of infection by COVID19.  As a result, across the US, states are reporting a spike in domestic violence cases during the pandemic, creating a national public health crisis.

An NIH study says that “In Portland there was a 22% increase in arrests related to domestic violence, Jefferson County Alabama experiencing a 27% increase in domestic violence calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019, and New York City experiencing a 10% increase in domestic violence calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline tracked a significant surge in calls from victims between March through May, reporting a 9% increase in total calls received, with 6210 callers citing COVID 19 as the reason for an escalation in abuse. Another study in May reported a 10.2 percent increase in domestic violence calls to the police for service.

But though domestic-violence hotlines expected more demand for services as shelter-in-place mandates were enforced, DV organizations say that in some parts of the country, “the number of calls dropped by more than 50%” as victims fear drawing attention to themselves in their households. Experts believe that the lockdown has prevented victims from safely connecting with services during isolation, not that IPV rates have dropped during the hidden pandemic.

So how do DV victims navigate out of dangerous situations when trapped at home, and send out an SOS without saying a word?

Nowadays, as most interactions with other people occur online, support groups are devising strategies for survivors to ask for help that do not leave a digital trace. In the videos that aired, DV victims employ tactics that demonstrate hand signals and options that are safe to use. Certainly, increased public messaging and media coverage are one way to take IPV out of the shadows and show victims how to reach out and ask for help without being afraid.

But why has COVID19 exacerbated the DV crisis and what does it say about the culture we live in?

At a briefing hoisted by EMS on December 4th, health advocates shed light on various factors that have contributed to the DV crisis during the pandemic, and the DV questions that need to be asked.

Dr. Ravi Chandra

“One in three women and one in ten men experience domestic abuse in their lifetime,” stated Bay Area psychiatrist Dr. Ravi Chandra. He explained that the anger and abuse that drives DV and other forms of violent behavior, derives from a culture of abusive power that’s reflected in our society. We live in a world said Chandra, where the racial trauma of George Floyd’s murder and the BLM movement for example, have an underlying aggravating cause that’s rooted in strains of a ‘narcissistic, self-centered, tribalistic personality and culture.’ These characteristics manifest for example, in political leaders or some members of law enforcement who wield ‘power, suffer from ‘self-centered delusion’, and employ ‘subordination, silencing and scapegoating’ to inflict trauma and retain power.

“Abusive power is given far too much license and is yet hidden in the shadows,” stated Chandra. The individualistic, antagonistic, aggressive, self-centered masculine power that Chandra describes is exemplified for instance, in the police officer who knelt on a dying George Floyd, while the legal recourse that shields police officers, is indicative of the entitled ‘wink and a nod’ directed towards law enforcement, when they use influence and the justice system to protect abusive officers with impunity.

These incidents are “a metaphor for the abusive household,” said Chandra, in which family members ‘look the other way’ rather than deal with the inappropriate behavior and assault that IPV victims endure from a parent, spouse or caregiver. We are all affected by a society which values money and power, especially masculine power, as more important than a relationship, said Chandra, adding that when compassion and common humanity become subordinated and under assault, it becomes difficult for DV victims ‘incarcerated’ in a household’ to fight their way out.

“COVID underscores risk factors for domestic violence,” noted Chandra. The pandemic has exposed the effects of living in an abusive household and the psychological experience of victims subjected to devaluing, bullying, threats, intimidation, coercion, gaslighting, dehumanization, calls for violence and more. Isolation encourages opportunities for psychological aggression and control, added Chandra. Furthermore, financial  stressors – frustrations over job loss, and income insecurity are risk factors that have contributed to the rise in DV cases.

Chandra also warned that DV victims have suffered setbacks during the Trump Presidency. In 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) narrowed the definition of domestic violence to only physical  aggression, ruling out psychological aggression. And, the administration has not reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act which has been partially credited for a 60% drop in violence against IPV victims between 1996-2010.

While women’s rights should be upheld, Chandra urged that men be given space to ‘come to terms’ with their own histories of childhood trauma and abuse. “Racism has disempowered and devalued BIPOC men in America,” Chandra stated, and this is an added psychological stress that needs examination.

Chandra suggested the need to deconstruct racism as well as masculine entitlement to power, to better understand how male vulnerability and ‘a friendship crisis among men’ makes them more isolated than women, and unable to comprehend how mutual relationships work. Domestic violence stems from this disconnection he explained.

For now though, it will take more than hand signals and heart searching for victims to unravel and emerge from the twisted knot of domestic violence. But help is at hand from advocates via the sources listed below.

As Chandra hopes, “As a psychiatrist and humanist, I hope that we can all work to create an equitable society where all have access to the all – important human journeys of identity, belonging and wellness.”


Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available to assist victims of intimate partner violence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling or texting (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

https://www.thehotline.org/wp-content/uploads/media/2020/09/The-Hotline-COVID-19-60-Day-Report.pdf

Links to SCC District Attorney’s Office Victim Service Unit brochures in multiple languages: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/publications/DistrictAttorneyBrochures/Pages/default.aspx

Family Justice Center Location in San Jose, SCC: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/VictimServices/FamilyJusticeCenter/Pages/FJC-SJ.aspx

Family Justice Center Location in Morgan Hill, SCC: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/da/VictimServices/FamilyJusticeCenter/Pages/FJC-MH.aspx

https://eastwindezine.com/mosf-vol-15-5-queer-and-black-asian-and-young-drama-del-rosario-tchoupitoulas-and-ocean-vuong/

 

 

Dharavi slum in Mumbai

India’s Low COVID Death Rate Is Puzzling

Though the COVID-19 crisis hit India hard – over 9 million cases have been reported and more than 138 thousand people have died  – the mortality rate from COVID-19 is inexplicably lower compared to other countries.

For instance, while the US leads the world with more than 14 million cases and over 276 thousand deaths, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center, India accounts for only 10% of deaths globally and has the highest number of recovered patients of COVID-19 at 94%, even though its coronavirus caseload is second only to the US.

With such a significant share of the world’s coronavirus cases, shouldn’t COVID-19 have been more devastating in India?

Krishnaraj Rao

“Then again it has not,” announced Krishnaraj Rao, an investigative journalist from Mumbai, India, at an EMS briefing (November 20) on the pandemic.

“Something strange has been happening within the Indian subcontinent and neighboring regions,” said Rao. “For some strange reason our mortality rate per million is one eighth and our total cases seem to be in the region of one sixth per million.”

As COVID-19 began its inexorable spread across the world, the WHO recommended safety precautions to protect against the virus – physical distancing, wearing a mask, well ventilated rooms, avoiding crowds and close contact, and regularly washing hands.

But in an outcome that has puzzled epidemiologists and scientists alike, India seems to be experiencing a low mortality rate from the coronavirus, stated Rao, despite the crowded conditions in which many urban Indians live.

A large proportion of urban dwellers in a developing country like India lack access to adequate healthcare facilities and maintain poorer sanitation and hygiene practices which are known to be responsible for a higher incidence of communicable diseases.  So the virus was expected to have caused many more deaths in densely populated communities in India than it has.

Urban Indians are ‘badly housed,’ explained Rao, using Mumbai as an example to explain why crowded Indian cities offer a fertile petri-dish for catastrophic coronavirus outbreaks.  “I would say that close to 60% of the population of urban India lives closely packed together in slums.”

In a metropolis like Mumbai, home to over 20 million and India’s largest city, nearly one million people live cheek by jowl in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

“Houses are no more than two feet apart. Each house is no larger than a 10 by 12 room,” said Rao.

Each home houses about 10 to 12 people, closely packed together. It makes social distancing nearly impossible, while access to basic hygiene essentials, including toilets and hand washing are limited.

“There is only one public toilet per every two or three hundred slum dwellers,” explained Rao, highlighting the less than hygienic conditions in slums like Dharavi. “Face masks, social distancing…are close to non-existent. We take things like face masks, temperature checks and sanitizing very lightly,” he claimed.

“If it were a pandemic that was ravaging us because of a lack of social distancing,” asked Rao, why are the slums relatively less impacted than expected? And, despite overcrowding on the suburban railways, he adds, “the crisis has hit us less hard than anticipated.”

While epidemiologists attribute India’s low mortality rate to under-reporting, and even though Rao himself expected undercounting, he alleged that at least in Dharavi, there is no evidence of it. “I don’t see the bodies piling up in the streets… or the hospitals,”  nor has he noted any alarming rises in the body count.

Rao claimed he is voicing “a mainstream belief” felt across economic classes and demographics in India, that the coronavirus is not causing the high mortality rates that were anticipated.

In Dharavi, officials say that concerted public health efforts to trace, track, test and treat cases, have helped to contain community spread.

Now, recent research by Indian scientists seeking to explain why India’s death rate is so low, suggest that more Indians may be immune to COVID-19 because they live in unsanitary conditions which have created an unexpected shield from the virus.

According to one study, more than 70 percent of all COVID–19 deaths have occurred in high income countries like Italy, Spain, UK, France and USA. It hypothesized that more people died in richer countries with older populations, because better hygiene and safe sanitation practices lowered levels of immunity and made people more susceptible to the virus.

In another study scientists report, “It appears that countries with better health care, clean environment, clean food and water have higher COVID associated mortality, whereas developing and underdeveloped countries have lower mortality in terms of deaths per million population.”

Both research studies (not yet peer reviewed), suggest that in low GDP countries like India, lives of people in densely populated areas may have been saved because of poor hygiene and sanitation practices.  Unsanitary conditions and exposure to diseases from childhood may have increased their ability to ward off infections, and boosted immunity against COVID-19. Experts also suggest that the early lockdown and a younger population helped stave off a higher death toll in India.

The science is intriguing. Does greater exposure to a variety of viruses in the slums of low income countries provide a better level of protection against the coronavirus, than the overly sanitized environments of richer nations?

“Paradoxically, better sanitation leads to poor immune training and thus could be leading to higher deaths per million,” says the study. But it cautions that while the research offers a possible explanation, poor hygiene is not a solution to the pandemic.

India, and Dharavi in particular, may have pulled off a remarkable reprieve against COVID-19 for now. But the pandemic is far from over and science is still learning about this young virus. So, public health experts warn, SMS (social distance, mask, and sanitize) must remain the global mantra to keep Covid 19 at bay, until vaccines become easily available to the general public.


Meera Kymal is the contributing editor at India Currents.

photo credit: Baron Reznik

Caring Long Distance

“Get rid of Annu right away!”

The injunction came from the top.

And then came an oblong package that we hadn’t ordered. It was the implement to lure us into believing that getting rid of Annu wouldn’t be as hard as we were thinking.

Sinister as the plan appears to be, Annu is merely our regular help and the box contained a fancy mop intended to replace her during the scary spikes in COVID positive numbers in India. And the injunction, along with the hair-raising pandemic stories across the world, came from our son, half a world away from us, in the US.

To a person untutored in the ways of middle-class Indians – domestic help is an indispensable part of our lives, our frontline warriors against the daily battle against the dust and grime. And they really aren’t the luxury it would appear to the Western eye, but a necessity at a place where things get coated with dust before you can spell D-U-S-T. The vibrant, vivid Rajasthan that one sees in the travel brochures hides the truth of the unannounced, unexpected dust-storms, the extreme heat with it, which, in turn, necessitates cooking three fresh meals every day, which are rarely one-pot meals.  Pots and pans pile up like mini-mountains with this uncompromising adherence to fresh meals every day, thrice a day. 

A similar command from our White Hope had come on top of our Lockdown 1 and we had obediently followed it. What followed that, was however a nightmare where my dreams were about endless mopping, sweeping and washing, which would make me wake up in a cold sweat. By the end of the month, I’d done my soul-searching – not Corona, this endless drudgery would kill me first. 

“Helloo?” I mumbled when I talked to Sonny the next morning, “Look, Annu is coming from tomorrow…”

The rest was drowned in a “Noooooooooooooo!!!!” as piercing as the siren of an ambulance.

“Listen…” I tried again, “It has been a month, Annu and us, we have all been isolating and are healthy, and….”

“Do you know numbers are climbing in India?”

“Well, yes, we have newspapers (sanitized) and Twitter.”

“So?”

“So, Annu is returning. Yes, we will be supremely meticulous about sanitization and social-distancing and masking but I’m damned if I open and try the contraption that you have thoughtfully sent over!”  

Aditya, our son, is in Illinois, and we are in Rajasthan. If the pandemic hadn’t hit the world, we three would have been together at this time, after a whole year. A visit we had been so looking forward to. We had been gleefully planning family trips, long lists of things we would do in our three months together, longer lists of what all we would be cooking and eating. 

Instead, COVID-19 came.

Overnight the plans, the world went topsy-turvy and it hit us afresh how far away we were from each other. Fear gripped us like nothing we had known earlier. It wasn’t only the unpredictably dangerous novel virus, it was/is also the lockdown and the bans on travel. The thought that we wouldn’t even be able to be close to each other to comfort or console, if, God forbid, something untoward happens was the most unnerving of all. It’s a scenario we try to avoid thinking about.

Children of many Indian families are in the US, either working or studying. Even in the world BC (Before Corona) it was a tough decision to make but the plethora of better opportunities and the first-world amenities appeared to make the separation and the distance worthwhile. After all, we were just a long flight away. But when COVID-19 hit the US and international flights were banned, many of us wondered about the wisdom of that choice. Some went as far as to implore the kids to return and find work in India as it was ‘safer’. An argument which didn’t take into account two things, one, that very soon we, in India, would be hit just as hard, making home as dicey as ‘abroad’ and two, no pandemic could last forever, COVID-19 too would pass and things will go back to normal. 

After months of being in suspended animation and of adapting to the weird reality of lockdowns; obsessively checking the spread of the octopus tentacles of COVID -19, oscillating between unrealistic hope and deep despair, most of us have come to terms with recrafting our lives to a new normal while we wait for the vaccine or the natural demise of the virus.

And during the unpredictable wait, we are finding new ways to be there for each other. One blesses the technology every day when we ‘meet’ twice a day and exchange all the newsworthy, and for that matter, news-unworthy tidbits. Much like he used to as a kid, my son blabbers about all that is happening with him; we discuss what we are bingeing on, on Netflix, and of course, the family-gossip is exchanged with as much alacrity as ever. The only difference is that earlier he used to lean against the door-frame, these days he is propped up against my pickle bottles – the perfect vantage point for him to keep the whole kitchen in his sight while I cook for the day. On the other side, it is we, who do the propping up, while the son gets on with his cooking – another art which he may not have learned as fast had it not been for the lockdown across our worlds.

I finally have the satisfaction of having passed on the family recipes, and the utter joy on his face is evidence enough that he has mastered the art which he, till now, thought to be complex witchcraft. 

He, on his end, looks at us through a microscope, gnaws his nails as he reads up about the number-spike in India and then sends us the scariest articles he can find on COVID-19, and peers at us throughout our calls, maintaining a relentless vigil on whether we are following all safety-protocols and woe betide us if he finds us without our masks when our house-help is around.

From checking up on each other to gossiping to ordering care-packages online when we are physically miles apart is the new-normal we are getting used to and are indeed, so thankful for. The one thing that technology has still to achieve is to transfer the fragrances of home. 

And a way to box our son’s ears, the next time he suggests getting rid of our help again.


Madhumita Gupta is a dreamer, animal-lover, writer, teacher, incorrigible movie-buff.

Bereavement in a COVIDian Era

I stood anxiously inside the ICU while my brother spoke to the doctor on duty to confirm that his report explicitly stated that our mom’s death was non-COVID related. Without that report, we had been told that we would run into issues with the city. My brother scrambled to get the report of the COVID-19 test that was taken a few days ago while our spouses tried to book the earliest slot in the crematorium to minimize contact with other mourners. My mom had just died after a five-week struggle in the hospital but dealing with the pandemic took precedence over our grieving process. 

As condolence messages started pouring in, a common thread ran through them: “How fortunate that you got to spend the last five months with your mom!” “You must be so grateful!” “The COVID-19 lockdown was a blessing in disguise for you.” “You’re so lucky.” I thought I heard a note of jealousy in one octogenarian’s voice but soon I realized it was just fear: “Your mother was so blessed. How lucky she was surrounded by her family!” Another message sounded very bizarre when I first heard. “You must be thankful that she did not die during the lockdown. We could not scatter the ashes of my father in the river Cauvery because of travel restrictions.” Rarely, these messages and conversations dwelt on my loss or my grief. 

In February, when the Coronavirus infections were still in single digits in Silicon Valley, my mom was hospitalized in Bangalore and I left for India. My mom came home after a few days. I had a return ticket for a date in March but my instincts were against returning to the US. Then India went into a countrywide lockdown, and all international flights got canceled. I got to spend the next five months with my mom, taking care of her, listening to her desires, her fears and her view of how her life had fared. We played cards, listened to music and discussed recipes.

Anandi’s mother on her birthday.

During this pandemic, some of my friends in the US lost their loved ones in India and were unable to attend the funeral in India. Some in India were also unable to travel to the funeral of their loved ones. There are so many obstacles: lack of flights, travel restrictions and quarantine rules. One friend had to ask a neighbor to take care of the funeral of a loved one. The most harrowing ones I heard were from people who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 and did not get to say their final goodbyes. There were sons who could not perform the last rites. A friend, sobbing uncontrollably, told me that she did not get to bathe and dress her mother, a daughter’s duty after the mother’s death. This coronavirus has not only killed people and financially ruined many but also has left survivors suffering from guilt and having trouble getting closure. Hence, I do understand the significance of the condolence messages I received. Besides getting time to spend with our mom, my brother and I got to do our last duties, which have become increasingly challenging during this pandemic. 

It has been a few weeks and I am home now. Some nights I wake up in a state of panic, struck by the finality of my mom’s death and it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. The other day, when I was sitting at the dining table, I thought my mom would have liked to know who brought us food on the day of her funeral, since cooking is not allowed in the house. That is the kind of question she would have asked me and I would have told her that someone whom she cared about deeply brought us food. As days pass by, often I find something I would have shared with her – a recipe or a song by a rising young singer or a visit by a friend or a relative — on our regular weekly phone calls and I grasp the impossibility of communicating with her and have trouble breathing. I feel the vacuum in my life. None of the positive things people said comfort me. Grief does not care about logic and reason. I have lost a relationship, the longest one of my life, and I do not feel fortunate. 


Anandi Lakshmikanthan is a retired software engineer. She is a co-founder of Sevalaya USA. She tutors refugee women and children. She has written short stories and reviews. 

Connecting to Nature is Good for Public Health

The Bay Area is a great place to live in. It is blessed with progressive land planning that has set aside vast open space areas for recreation. Measures, like Measure Q and now T, to be voted in by the people, ensure that open spaces in Santa Clara Valley stay protected and accessible.

During the lock-down, families truly appreciate the value of access to public parks and open spaces. 

Atulya Sarin, Professor of Santa Clara University lost his beloved 12 year old dog Bufar Bryant Sarin last year. During the pandemic Sarin yearned to be outdoors . “I truly understand how my dog Bufar felt,” says Atulya Sarin with a smile, “I can’t wait for 5pm when I can go for my walk.” 

What helped families like Professor Sarin’s to escape to the outdoors was Measure Q, a $24 parcel-tax that was approved in 2014 by voters. It generated approximately $7.9 million per year, thereby enabling the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority to nearly double protected space in the county to more than 26,000 acres.

 It also preserved about 1,000 acres in North Coyote Valley, so Santa Clara Valley’s residents had open spaces and lands to escape to during lockdown.

Measure T, on the November 2020 ballot, renews Measure Q – keeping the parcel tax at $24 – but with the clause that it will renew automatically each year unless ended by voters. 

All funds are spent in the cities of San Jose, Milpitas, Santa Clara, Campbell, Morgan Hill, and in the unincorporated portions of Santa Clara County.

“We are in a great place and the reason we are in a great place is because measure Q gave us resources to buy up land,” said state Assemblymember Ash Kalra at a virtual meeting organized by Ethnic Media Services on October 1. At the end of the day, said Kalra, the land cannot be protected unless it is bought. Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority purchased land to protect it permanently. 

“We can zone land any which way, but a different council can change that. It is critical therefore that in addition to legislation to create a conservation program we must have the Open Space Authority have resources to purchase and protect the land permanently,” he said. 

Coyote Valley

A case in point is Coyote Valley – 7,400 acres of land between the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo range. The land is key for flood protection and safeguarding the valley’s ecological livelihood. 

In the 1980s, Apple eyed Coyote Valley as a place to build its world headquarters. In the 1990s, Cisco Systems tried to build a massive campus there. Environmental groups, who said the area — currently used by farmers and wildlife — should be left in its natural state, fought both proposals.

“We all know a little bit of development causes a domino effect and next thing you know it really becomes a totally different type of landscape. 

Measured Response

The pandemic and wildfires have choked California this year.   

“Scientists are telling us that we need to protect 30 percent of the land to keep global warming at bay,” said Kalra. “The more land we can protect the more we can combat global warming. We are seeing how human behavior is connected to all these tragedies,” he said.

South Bay leaders at the press briefing urged a vote for Measure T, which would preserve a tax used for parks and open areas.

“We need to protect this open space for the preservation of a sustainable future for California,” said state Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a long-time environmental advocate. 

Expanding public access to nature improves public health  “Spending as little as two hours a week in nature, 15-20 minutes a day, can improve self-reported health and well-being,” says Sadiya Muqueeth, director community health at the Trust for Public Land.

“We can fix it! We created it and we can fix it,” said Kalra 


Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

 

Penning of the 8th Month

The 8th Month

 

lifting myself up repeatedly 

deadweight took over me

lost in days.

nothing to aspire towards 

an eternal cycle and ample grey skies

lost in uncertainty.

a barrier of contact made illness

even time was drunk and we were stuck 

lost in obstacles.

 

dreams were our only transportation 

took us to a remote time before 

lost in our minds.

*****


Rashmika Manu is a 10th grader attending High School. She enjoys using poetry as a form of expression. She is passionate about travel and hopes to fight poverty when she is older. 

Are We Going to Be Normal After This Pandemic?

The answer is NO if “normal” means “status quo ante” or going back to what we were before. The answer is neither disappointing nor a surprise.  It is absurd to expect something to stay standstill in an endlessly rotating planet called Earth which is somersaulting in an immeasurably vast universe. Our impatience, however, in waiting for the dreadful pandemic to end is indisputably natural. Sure enough, It will end because nothing lasts forever.  

So what will post-pandemic pictures unfold to our weary eyes?

We have to watch what follows with cautious optimism. Jumping off the hell is not synonymous with plunging in heaven. The spectrum of the post-pandemic period will be interspersed with new challenges testing our prophetic prudence. Have we mastered our learned lessons or will our fickle memory sequester it in oblivion? If we are intelligent enough, it will prepare us for the future. For the sake of brevity and expediency, let us settle our hopes and fears in two classes.

WHAT WE HOPE FOR:

We hope to have surmised that we are truly mortals who have learned that death does not always visit us in small and scattered incidents. It may as well raid us in a sweeping, devastating way and compel us to feel like helpless prey. As we dreadfully watched the steep rise in brutal mortality caused by the pandemic, science also told us that such catastrophes are not unprecedented.

We have been frequented by episodes of smallpox, polio, plague, cholera, Hong Kong and Spanish flu, and such disasters of diseases propounded by microbes. We feel like running deers chased by a terrifying tiger close behind. The pandemic we are facing is neither the first one nor the last one. A second pandemic could well be preparing itself, waiting for its opportune time. They may be unpredictable but chronologically sequenced with the passage of time.

We hopefully are better prepared each time, cautiously cognizant for the world. We have to communicate faster than the velocity of the worms and combat by a joint endeavor. This is the only way to curtail our mortality imminent upon a visit by unanticipated invaders. Pointing accusatory fingers at who started this microbial massacre will only amputate our aiding arms. United we stand, Divided we fall.

“Let us hang in together, or indeed each one of us will hang separately,” as most prophetically pronounced by Benjamin Franklin.

A bacterial war will be won only by sound teamwork unifying the whole world as a single team. By not learning this lesson this time, we made a serious mistake of creating Divided Countries of the World and paid an exorbitant price for it. History has a pattern of repeating itself unless we are vigilantly watching with a discerning eye.

What we hope not:

We hope not that this pernicious pandemic leaves any sequelae behind. Sequela is a medical term used for complications that emerge long after the disease disappears. This infection is new to us and therefore, we are not completely knowledgeable about the course it may run. We will have to combat all complications as they come. 

Not only the physical but also the psychological damage that the pandemic can leave behind may need to be faced factually. Our particular concern should be centered around our children who have painfully grown through a period of sustained trauma and deprivations.

I met a young man who passed his childhood in a war zone. Years later, he wakes up screaming at night when hearing an ambulance pass by. Children, in general, may be equipped with greater immunity against the disease but they are also more prone to retain a sustained memory of a mental trauma that they were exposed to. No math can predict the extent of the aftermath. It is essential to remember this aspect because children of today will be the deciding fate of tomorrow.

I am also concerned that too many stream sessions and loss of interpersonal interactions may lead us to subordinate the value of human touch and direct encounters. To deal with peoples’ images rather than people themselves can push us downstream fostering a phobia for live human interactions. Our emotional and physical closeness to each other is the very bulwark on which we sustain. Let us not be unmindful that we need each other to survive and thrive.

“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing, “ said T.S. Elliot.

The social, economic, and emotional impact of this catastrophe should not be underestimated either. Depression, suicidal tendencies, self-effacing and destructive patterns of behavior, and horrors of hooliganism may surface much to our dismay.

Finally, we hope this tragedy does not drive us away from God. God may not protect our Temples and Churches but the secret of our love and happiness lies in God hidden in our hearts. We keep on hoping because Hope is nothing but the constancy of faith. Most faiths have accepted and established a parent-child relationship with God. The more we are disappointed, the more we turn to Him until we are hale and healed. The course of our actions will let us see who we are and who we are not. Our deepest compassion for the bereaved families should never fade.

Peace! Peace!! Peace!


Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com.