Introduction by Croakey: People around the world have watched on with horror at India’s unfolding COVID-19 catastrophe, as its death toll surged past 200,000 today, overwhelming healthcare facilities and crematoriums amid shortages of oxygen, medical supplies and staff.
The last 24 hours brought 360,960 new cases for the world’s largest single-day total, taking India’s tally of infections to nearly 18 million on its deadliest day so far.
For Melbourne obstetrician Dr Nisha Khot, like so many of the Indian diaspora in Australia, it is a desperate time — every day full of fear for elderly parents, aunties, uncles, cousins, friends, nieces, nephews, amid closing borders and racist comments.
She writes below about the anguish and grief, urging Australians to show kindness and empathy to their Indian colleagues, neighbours and friends.
“There are more than 750,000 of us in Australia and we are hurting,” she says.
Nisha Khot writes:
“Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention.”
I can’t quote Sinatra anymore because the regrets are piling up very quickly.
Where do I start? Regret for having left India more than two decades ago, leaving behind parents, aunties, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours.
Regret for choosing to go on holiday in December 2019 instead of visiting my parents back home in Pune, Maharashtra.
Regret for not being there when they need me.
Regret for being the doctor my parents are proud of, but being helpless, unable to make any meaningful difference to their health.
Regret for leaving my medical school classmates to deal with all the difficulties of being a doctor in India whilst choosing the relatively easy option of being a doctor in Australia.
As I read post after post on social media platforms where my fellow Australians speak of ‘banning India’ (how does one ban a country?), being ‘sick and tired of these Indians’, ‘taking away their dual citizenship’ (India does not give anyone dual citizenship. These are Australian citizens of Indian origin), my heart feels heavy, very heavy.
I am surrounded by love and warmth, yet these comments from a select few strangers have the ability to bring unexpected tears that are just below the surface.
In January 2020, I was telling my parents that I would see them soon when they visited Melbourne.
Yes, I had last seen them two years ago, but as I blithely went on holiday, I believed we would be together before long.
We were separated by ‘just a flight’. I could go to India whenever I was needed.
A highly infectious virus striking at the heart of all travel plans was not on my radar.
By April, all travel to and from Australia was suspended. As a Melburnian healthcare worker, I lived through one of the strictest lockdowns in the world quietly grateful for my safety whilst simultaneously feeling unspeakable guilt as COVID-19 wrecked havoc across the world.
During this first phase, my mother fell ill. No, it wasn’t related to COVID but any illness in an elderly parent is a worry, especially when you can’t be there for them.
As mum was hospitalised, my emotions swung wildly between despair at the possibility of her acquiring COVID-19 while in hospital and paralysing fear at the equally frightening possibility of her not getting appropriate treatment because the healthcare system was overwhelmed with caring for COVID-19 patients.
Fortunately, mum recovered completely and was soon home.
Aunty was not so fortunate. She did get COVID-19, and despite having no underlying conditions, succumbed to the virus.
Relief and hubris
Still India did well in the first pandemic wave and the case numbers started to fall, vaccination began in earnest and the Indian diaspora breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a certain hubris about India’s handling of the crisis. Yes, the plight of migrant workers having to walk thousands of miles to get home was disturbing. But hadn’t we done better than the West? We had got it right while so many nations had got it so wrong.
This feeling of having got it right was strong in Australia too. Australians of Indian origin could feel doubly proud of both the Indian as well as the Australian response.
When the COVID-19 second wave engulfed the UK following Christmas shopping and gatherings, I hoped that the world would take heed. In Australia, there were very few cases, yet Christmas had been a subdued affair.
India, however, decided to go its own way. The Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering of millions of people on the banks of the holy Ganges, coupled with political rallies attended by tens of thousands of people and a cricket match with 75,000 spectators, provided the fertile grounds for the virus to multiply and spread.
To this potent mix was added the crumbling healthcare infrastructure that had not been upgraded despite the warning first wave and the country was soon up in flames.
Healthcare under collapse
In Australia, I watched the joyous scenes of loved ones wrapping their arms around each other as the Trans-Tasman travel bubble opened. I was immeasurably happy for my Kiwi friends and colleagues who could reunite with family.
But there was also a real and visceral grief, an ache of longing, longing to feel the same happiness, longing to put my arms around mum.
The experience of living in a country with the record of conquering COVID-19 whilst having your heart stuck in the country with record breaking daily numbers of covid is surreal and disconcerting.
India’s healthcare infrastructure is outdated and in dire need of investment. Its healthcare workers are some of the most hardworking, committed and caring individuals who work miracles in challenging environments.
Having graduated from India, I am keenly aware of the daily struggle to source basic drugs, equipment, blood, surgical supplies, hospital beds. The list is long and ever expanding. Yet, oxygen is the one resource that has never previously been in short supply. The most ill-equipped, remote PHC (Primary Health Centre) has relatively easy access to oxygen.
As India struggles to breathe, the fears that many healthcare workers have long harboured bubble to the surface.
The lack of genuine political leadership in healthcare becomes obvious.
If the scenes of mass cremations and statistics are not bad enough, attempts to suppress the truth are horrific.
Families devastated by COVID-19 want the world to know the truth of what is happening in India. Political leaders may want to put a positive spin on the situation but the common man on the street can’t use ‘spin’ for food or for oxygen.
In April 2020, Arundhati Roy wrote:
It (the pandemic) is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred. Or we can walk through it lightly, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
I ask my fellow Australians for kindness and empathy for Australians of Indian origin who stack grocery shelves, drive taxis, provide healthcare, childcare, aged care, disability care, and for balance from the Australian government between canceling flights versus providing urgent help.
Support your Indian colleagues, neighbours and friends. There are more than 750,000 of us in Australia and we are hurting.
Hurting to see the devastation in India, hurting from the loss of near and dear ones, hurting from separation, hurting from not knowing if we will ever see our parents alive.
I trust Australians to leave judgement behind and walk hand-in-hand with each other to the other side of the pandemic portal where we can, together, fight for a better world for all of us.
The virus has no moral judgement, no religion, no understanding of borders. It affects us all. We can only eradicate it together. Jai Ho! (as the song from Slumdog Millionaire goes, urging victory of good over evil). May victory prevail. But may it be with love and compassion.
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