Dealing with a crisis from afar involves making some really tough choices.
With a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting India in the last three months, many Sammamish residents have been struggling with how to take care of relatives in India as they fall sick, while balancing their concern with the need to keep themselves and their families here safe.
While the rate of coronavirus infections has slowed in the United States, India has struggled with high hospitalizations and low vaccine supply. The current wave of infections began late March and peaked in early May at more than 400,000 cases per day. There has been a shortage of everything from beds to oxygen and medical personnel. Now, only 2.4% of its population is full vaccinated and more than 3,000 people are still dying every day.
These statistics became real for members of Sammamish’s Indian community who have experienced personal anxiety and loss.
Amit Chopra, 50, recorded five deaths in his family over the last five months – three of them due to COVID-19.
Chopra traveled to Delhi in April to accompany his father for his post-heart surgery follow-up appointments, and walked right into the pandemic.
Three days after his arrival, Chopra’s mother started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and quarantined herself in a room. Not being able to see his wife took a toll on Chopra’s father and his health deteriorated soon after.
Chopra found himself juggling all chores, including arranging for food, doing dishes and managing laundry while taking care of two ailing parents in separate rooms with no maids or other help. He said he spent multiple sleepless nights taking his mother’s temperature and monitoring her oxygen levels while also caring for his father, running between two rooms and changing and sanitizing himself each time to avoid transmitting the virus. Friends in India helped to arrange meal deliveries and even secured an oximeter for him to use.
Being isolated in his building, which is standard protocol in India for buildings with COVID-19 patients, was the hardest part for Chopra. Chopra himself was also dealing with fever and flu-like symptoms.
“Last year when these things were happening in Italy, and we were watching it on TV. It was so different than experiencing it firsthand,” said Chopra, “I don’t think one can truly empathize while being away.”
Unfortunately, Chopra lost his father on May 3 due to post-surgery health deterioration. With cremation sites overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths, he said he faced immense challenges in finding a place to perform the last rites. He paid a pundit, or Indian priest, heavily to secure a spot for cremation and had to pay people to carry his father’s body, which under normal circumstances would have been done by family and friends.
Even through this ordeal, Chopra said he could not imagine how his parents would have coped without him there.
“I have the biggest peace of mind that I was there for them,” said Chopra.
Other families watched the crisis unfold and did their best to support their relatives from Sammamish.
Anuradha Shenoy, 52, experienced many sleepless nights while trying to manage long distance care for her parents in Mumbai, India. Shenoy and her sister both live in the U.S., so they do not have a strong India-based support network.
Her mother started experiencing nasal congestion on April 12, but initial COVID test results came back negative. Eight days later, her father was breathing heavily.
It was an uphill battle for Shenoy to secure a hospital bed for her father. She used several volunteer groups in India, who made calls on her behalf for about four hours before they could find an ambulance.
They had even more hurdles to overcome to get him admitted, because his initial COVID test result was also negative, and only managed to secure him a hospital bed after another four hours.
Once in the COVID-19 ward, her father was cut off from communicating with Shenoy for the next five days due to hospital staff being overwhelmed. After successfully reaching him on the sixth day, Shenoy and her sister split the nights making continuous calls to try to reach him and were finally successful again on the eleventh day.
“Around the clock this was going on, as we were frantically attempting to call my father while also checking in on my mother,” said Shenoy.
Her mother, who also tested COVID-positive, was managing alone at home as their caretaker had moved to another isolation facility in Mumbai for COVID-19 patients. This was a hard choice to make, considering that her mother was weak but had minor symptoms. However, Shenoy believed that it was not a good idea to try to get her into an overburdened hospital.
Shenoy feels grateful that her father eventually recovered after spending three weeks in the hospital. However, she struggles with the guilt that her family got lucky.
“It was the same day that my father came home, that my friend lost her father, and it was the guilt that my father was recovering, and her father passed away,” said Shenoy. “The feeling of helplessness is terrible.”
Soma Oberoi, who is in her early 40s, is an only child. The Sammamish resident feels tremendous guilt in not being able to travel to India to be with her family, but her H1B visa would not have allowed her to return to the U.S. due to the current travel ban for India.
Her mother, who lives alone, was infected with COVID-19 in late-March, but initially did not share that information with Oberoi for fear of worrying her daughter. She only experienced mild symptoms and has since recovered, but her family did suffer the loss of Oberoi’s aunt.
Oberoi’s family is still reeling from the loss and is trying to support each other during these hard times. Oberoi was able to convince her mother to temporarily move in with her widower uncle, and create a support system for each other.
Not being there for her family weighs heavily on Oberoi.
“I still live in fear that I cannot travel right now,” she said. “It is tough that you cannot mourn with your loved ones.”