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Covid in India: Grief and worry consume expats in the UAE

Anjaly Thomas/Dubai
Filed on May 6, 2021 | Last updated on May 7, 2021 at 12.24 pm

As India gets battered with the second wave of Covid-19, for the Indian diaspora, the battle to maintain sanity has become a constant ­— with them wondering when they can visit family and friends back home again


Grim pictures fill the TV screen. From one news channel to the next I surf in hope. But the image is unchanged. People scrambling for oxygen cylinders, funeral pyres burning out of control, wailing children, families devastated by a virus and a situation out of control. It is the same story online and on social media. The world’s attention is fixed firmly on the state my country is in. From what I see and hear, the second wave blowing through India is far deadlier than the one that took away one of my parents in September last year.

The memory of that day still hurts. I am only thankful I could make it just in time to say goodbye to my father, although self-quarantine meant my participation in the burial was denied. Maybe that’s what hurts more. I can’t be sure.

Today, despite the situation unfolding around me, I want to cling to a hope that this too shall pass. Yet, I can’t help but worry about my 74-year-old mother in my small, green village in Wayanad, Kerala, currently under lockdown.

The “what ifs” doesn’t stop. Because no one knows how long this second wave of the pandemic will last or when the next flight home will be announced; that itself is enough to send one into a state of worry — or worse, depression.

The tickers on news channels announcing the recovery rate are a small course of comfort, albeit temporary. I do the math. Infection vs Death, but nothing can stop the fear and anxiety.

As scores of new cases continue to wreak havoc in India, numerous countries across the world have little choice but to implement travel bans or advisories in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid. More countries are joining the bandwagon which currently include the US, the UAE, Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Saudi and Canada while borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh remain shut. India is almost isolated — like its diaspora.

In Dubai, friends and acquaintances, many of whom haven’t seen or met families since the start of the pandemic, join hands in helping struggling countrymen to procure oxygen and life-saving medicines, opening up their hearts and wallets in the despatch of essential supplies and equipment through embassies and consulates. But the task is mammoth. The frustration is real. Helplessness and despair are rising as the world’s second-most populous country teeters on the brink of collapse.

Frustration and helplessness

Losing his mother during the Covid lockdown and having to witness the funeral on FB Live is the worst outcome of this pandemic for Dubai-based PR professional Royston Rodrigues. He takes solace in the fact that he visited his 65-year-old mother a few months before she passed away, before the lockdown came into effect. “Not being able to say goodbye was very unsettling and difficult. I was unable to travel even when the flights resumed because my wife was pregnant.”

They managed to visit India in June last year, when restrictions eased, but now it looks like a long wait once again. Royston feels the best way to safeguard one’s mental balance in the present situation is to stay away from all social media and read less of what is going on. “That is not a solution and yet I’d definitely like to know what’s going on at home — it’s a double-edged sword.” He often wakes up at night wondering what the next phone call or message will convey.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Bangkok-based Dr Parvathy Varma’s 86-year-old mother, who lived with them in Thailand, decided to return to Kerala, India, for a few months, which was then relatively safe. The situation soon changed, and it’s been over 18 months now that her mother is stuck in India all alone.

“The thought of not being able to travel anytime soon is very stressful. My mom lives all by herself — I feel helpless because we’d made this temporary arrangement for her to live in India at the start of Covid, but this [current] situation was unforeseen. There is an overriding sense of guilt.” Parvathy’s worst fear is for her mother’s health. “And by that, I mean both physical and mental. Being alone with limited or no social interaction can have a devastating effect on her.’

Overcoming the guilt

For almost two years now, Saranya Rustagi, head of communications at Heriot-Watt University, Dubai, has been yearning to go home. But given the current situation, all she can do is watch with bated breath as the situation continues to worsen in India. “My heart breaks for my country. The stories I see and hear are gut wrenching,” she says. “My parents live in Bangalore and my in-laws live in Gurgaon, two of the worst hit cities currently under strict lockdown. My father-in-law tested positive (and eventually recovered). My ageing parents live in complete isolation and are struggling to attend to basic chores.”

Saranya is unsure of when she might be able to visit her family, much as she wants to. For her, knowing that her family is “stable” so far is a small consolation. To help overcome the helplessness of the situation, she and her husband decided to contribute to the cause of procuring oxygen concentrators for those who need them in India. “Our effort is just a tiny drop, but this is the least we can do for our country. It makes us feel connected to them and helps us in understanding their struggles better. The waiting game is hard, and no matter what, we make sure we speak to our family every day — that way they feel connected to the outside world, especially to their grandkids here in Dubai.”

Dubai-based business owner of a direct sales agency Nitin Aggarwal has spent the last 18 months in Dubai. This period has been the longest he has stayed away from his family in India. “Not being able to see family in times like this is quite distressing and agonising,” he says.

“My parents and brother live in Gurgaon, among the worst affected cities in India. I have lost a few near and dear ones. My brother and his family who tested positive are undergoing treatment (and stable), but my 68-year-old dad also tested positive — this is extremely worrying. Securing a bed in a hospital is almost an impossible task now.”

London-based Ajay Hasabnis is in a constant state of worry, considering that for the last two years he has been unable to visit his parents in India. He continues to hold on to the belief that vaccines might prove to be life-saving, although he has a hard time coming to terms with the deaths of family and friends, including an uncle and a close friend and the hospitalisation of his sister and brother-in-law who contracted Covid.

His biggest fear, however, is that he might not be present if the worst happens. “My parents are not tech-savvy, they live alone, and India being on the Red List means there can be no travel either way anytime soon. I am doing my best to stay sane and not worry too much. I feel a little guilty too: I have wonderful facilities here and I wish my parents and my countrymen had access to better facilities.”

Home is a world far away

Melbourne-based trainer and assessor Manish Gaur, who visited India every year until Covid struck, is awaiting the day when he would be able to see his family in Kolkata and Faridabad in person again. He says the situation left them totally shattered and considering the stringent measures Australia has put in place for people travelling from India, it is highly unlikely he will be able to visit family soon.

“We’ve had a few close calls… my brother-in-law is recovering from the virus and, at the beginning of the pandemic, I lost my sister-in-law. That being said, it is a constant struggle to stay positive and not feel frustrated. The bad news just doesn’t stop,” he says, adding that the failure in leadership and the collapse of the political machinery spurred this surge.

Shanghai-based Arijit Sen last visited his family in Jamshedpur in January 2020 just before Covid started becoming news across the globe. “Since then, there has been no travel whatsoever. With the deadly second wave sweeping India currently, there is not even a remote chance that we will be able to travel to India. We are in an unprecedented situation right now. There are no answers. There is only the gloomy present and that is not encouraging.”

Arijit is resigned to the fact that he might not be able to see his parents in the near future. “Having elderly parents fending for themselves in this crisis is scary. Every day we are left to wonder what’s coming. Not to say that it is beginning to have telling effects on our lives.”

Any travel plans for North Carolina-based Saran Sanmugam remains out of bound at present. The last time he visited his family in India was November 2019. “My brothers live in Pondicherry and Pune, while my in-laws live in New Delhi. I have accepted that I won’t be able to visit them any time soon and although I did not personally suffer any grief, I can’t help but feel concerned. The virus is merciless. It spares no one.” Like many others, he is desperately trying to help in way he can: by supporting charities.

It’s two years since Dubai-based Shalini Menezes has been home to Mumbai and she believes that, given the current scenario, home has become a distant dream. “My ageing parents live in Mumbai and my biggest fear is that I cannot be with them if the worst happens. It is natural these days to fear the worst when I hear my phone ring.”

Considering that the current uncertainty leaves no scope or hope of meeting friends or family in the near future, Shalini decided to reconnect with family or friends around the globe just to keep the feeling of closeness going. She says it is the best way to keep your mind at peace. “Seeing the plight of my countrymen struggling for basic care made me realise the privileges we have here. My parents have switched their lives to online now. They are afraid to step outside their homes.”

Managing grief is essential

Majority of those who seek help these days are struggling with anxiety and traumatic losses, explains Farah Dahabi, Dubai-based grief and trauma specialist at The Lighthouse Arabia. She firmly believes that declining mental health is the hidden undertow of the Covid rise. “Each person’s reaction to the situation is as unique as their fingerprint. Many are fearful, worried, angry, and sad, while others describe feeling numb, empty, exhausted, and struggling to concentrate.”

She explains grief is not just a sad time that people push through to get through to the other side; rather, it is a complete reconstruction of self. “The only cure to grief is to grieve with self-compassion. While nothing ‘fixes’ or ‘solves’ grief, a counselling helps you navigate this unknown and sometimes hostile terrain.”

Rallying for a cause

The Indian diaspora in Dubai, that includes me, for whom the thought that home used to be “three hours away” but is now in a different realm, is panic-inducing. In recent times, grief and support groups on FB and WhatsApp have been marshalling forces to provide much-needed comfort to people whose lives have changed for the worse — both here and at home. The growing request for oxygen concentrators and Remdesivir is passed on or addressed promptly. The frustration is spurring many into action. Strangers are checking on one another, even if it is with a simple “Is everything okay?”

Every call I receive begins with “Is everyone safe at home?” I am relieved to say yes, but there is a nagging fear. Strangers in coffee shops walk up to me with concern, offering moral support. I tell them, like the rest of my countrymen, I am waiting, watching and wondering what’s coming.

Before the pandemic, I made it a point to switch off my phone after 8pm. “Me time,” I called it. But now my phone is on and always charged… I am even thankful when a midnight call turns out to be a random Internet caller from Senegal.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. You can contact her at anjaly@anjalythomas.com)





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