Seeing COVID Hurtle from a Distance

‘Are you well? Thik ho?’ This is the way conversations go between one Indian and another in Melbourne.

I no longer say Namaste Ji or Sat Sri Akal or Hello. Everybody knows the question really is: Is your family safe in India? Your friends? And you? Reaching out to each other on the street, in the gym, in a café is all you can do to share your grief and numbness, to look at each other for a while as COVID hurtles towards you and yours.

I whatsapp my friends and family, do a daily roll call as it were, to check they are still alright. Things change so suddenly. One of my closest friends in Delhi who was alright a couple of days ago, is sick with COVID four days later. I ask her why she did not let me know, that I was worried. She says she did not have the energy.

I now connect with her every day to find out if she is well, if she has eaten, if she has had the chicken soup she was going to prepare. Perhaps she can cook chicken with carrots, onion and potatoes in a slow cooker. That would take less effort.

I whatsapp a university friend with whom I studied sociology in Delhi. I ask her how she is. Her daughter replies with a notice for a prayer meeting. My friend had died two days ago, gasping for oxygen. The virtual prayer meeting was organised by her university Jamia Millia Islamia where she was a professor and a dean before she retired.

Her colleagues and students talk of her teaching, her care and grace, her love of poetry. They tell her daughter they are there for her. The daughter speaks of how her mother was trying to calm her family while they were desperately seeking Oxygen.

I am the only one at the prayer meeting who knew her mother as a student, who could remember having shared food with her on the lawns of Delhi School of Economics. I am the only one who could tell of the songs she used to sing when we met in each other’s parents’ homes.

With her dead, I have lost all my close friends from that part of my life.

I call my niece and nephew in Bangalore to discover they are down with COVID. They were fine a few days before. They are still at home and do not need oxygen. But three days later my niece’s 16-year-old daughter also tests positive for COVID. Fortunately for them, once their neighbours knew they were all down with COVID, they began leaving food outside the door.

I call my cousin in Delhi nearly every day. He is my mother’s brother’s son and my family base in Delhi. Three of his friends have COVID, despite having had one shot of the vaccine. One friend’s father-in-law has died. The family had to go to the crematorium at 5am to ensure they were able to cremate him.

He and his friends have had one shot of the vaccine. I tell him to call me as soon as he feels unwell. He says he hopes that when he does get COVID, that it won’t be severe.

Another old friend from Miranda House days and her brother in Delhi were sick with COVID. I check with her every day. Her brother had difficulty breathing. He was able to get to hospital. A week later he was dead.

All this time we had thought he was doing well. My friend wrote her brother had died in his sleep. Just weeks before, we were joking that the vaccinations would not prevent you from getting COVID but at least you would not die of it. But despite two shots of the vaccine, her brother was dead.

Even after he was dead, he had to be tested to see whether he was COVID positive or negative. It determined where he could be cremated.

I call friends in Copenhagen, Delhi and London to grieve together, to share this numbness across distance and borders. We wonder whether it was his diabetes that had hastened COVID, whether it was the medicine he received in hospital, whether our friend and her brother had already been infected before the second shot of the vaccine.

But he is dead. The family is looking for a priest who will do the 11th day prayers despite the lockdown.

I check with my friends in Dharamshala, my home in Delhi. Their immediate family is good. I need to check again for I hear from a friend in Melbourne that many have COVID even in this town by the Himalayas.

I am in touch with my late brother-in-law’s family in Bangalore and Kerala. All are in one form of lockdown or another.

I also check with my late sister’s carer in Lucknow. He says his wife had high fever. The doctor tested her for typhoid. She is getting better, though the typhoid test is negative. But all the others in the family are also unwell.

Did all of you get tested for COVID? I ask. No, he says. The doctor said that there is a ‘fever’ raging across households in the city. Boil some cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and carom seeds and drink it to clear the airways, the doctor told him.

Is your family coming from the village to look after you? I ask. He says the fever is raging in his village too.

A nephew who is a medical doctor in Punjab cancels commemorations for his late parents, that were planned for December. He writes, saying a third, fourth wave may hit India any time.

Others tell of relatives in hospital, or those who have died. Friends and family share videos, news stories from across the world. I obsessively scroll for news from India on WhatsApp, Twitter, and other media.

By now I am beyond anger and betrayal at the governments in India and Australia. I blank out watching COVID in India on television.

I donate, help with donation drives, hoping it will make a difference.

I read with admiration the people on the ground from my temples who are feeding thousands, who are helping to hook up people to oxygen in oxygen langars. My temple in Melbourne does what it can.

Like many of us, I look back at the choices I made to leave family and friends behind. When I left India in 1967, the future looked hopeful. It was possible to have a good life in distant lands and keep connection with family and friends in India. Recently, I have revelled in my ability to go back at least once a year if not more, be there in good times and bad.

Like me, many millions are now paying the cost of having left. Unlike some, my parents and siblings are no longer alive. I don’t face the prospect of seeing them die and be cremated on facetime.

But I also do not have the spiritual strength and equanimity to accept this as destiny, as something that was written. At this moment I can only see this tragedy unfold at a distance, unable to touch and comfort friends and family and see people in my life fall ill and die.

Supriya Singh is a writer and sociologist. She grew up in India, lived in Malaysia for 19 years and is now based in Australia.

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