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'When will it end?': COVID crisis in India leaves Houston community fearful for family and friends

19 May 2021 2:10 PM | Rachappa Bellappa (Administrator)

As the virus tore through his family in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Ramesh Bhutada knew he could not sit by his brother’s hospital bed or hug his grieving relatives.

Instead, the 75-year-old Sugar Land resident picked up his phone.

From across an ocean, Bhutada consoled his two sisters after the unexpected deaths of their husbands. One died a week before his youngest daughter’s wedding. Bhutada called his brother, who found a hospital bed in a nearby small town, and instructed the younger man to rest after sensing difficulty in his voice.

“It’s a very tough situation,” said Bhutada. “Any family I talk to over here, I find that someone from their extended family has been affected back in India.”

Indian American communities across the country — including a sizable population in the Houston metropolitan area — are mourning the deaths of family members, checking on relatives with growing alarm, and launching efforts to help their native country battle the world’s worst COVID-19 surge.

The unexpected, tsunami-like barrage of cases and deaths has overwhelmed the country’s medical system and shows no signs of slowing. The surge comes months after Indian leaders and health officials declared success in effectively stamping out the virus with a prompt lockdown last spring and strong compliance with the mask mandate. Cases peaked last September, according to New York Times data, but tapered off for the next six months while a third wave slammed the U.S.

Virus variants, large gatherings and a slow vaccine rollout are among factors experts cite for the current surge in India.

“Each one of us has been touched in a very deep way,” said Jagdip Ahluwalia, executive director of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston, who has lost multiple family members within weeks. “It’s a tragedy. The system’s just been overwhelmed.”

The country’s death toll pushed past 200,000 on Wednesday, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University, though health experts believe the official tally likely marks an undercount. The daily death count has nearly tripled in the past three weeks, according to the Associated Press. India, the world’s second most populous country, added nearly 380,000 new cases on Thursday, another global record, as it pushed past 18.3 million total infections. The case load is second only to the U.S.

The rampant surge is overwhelming the country’s health care system, with reports of dire oxygen shortages, desperate pleas on social media from families and doctors with dying patients, and crematoriums running out of space.

“Everything that you can think of is in critical supply right now,” said Gitesh Desai, president of the Houston chapter of Sewa International. “The challenges are enormous. It’s a mammoth task.”

As President Joe Biden and leaders of other countries pledge to send help, Indian Americans from the Houston area and elsewhere in the world are raising money and coordinating relief efforts.

Sewa International, a Hindu nonprofit, launched a fundraiser that by Thursday had garnered more than $5.8 million of its $10 million goal. With the donations, the organization is buying and shipping some 2,600 oxygen concentrators and additional medical equipment to India. Multiple community and professional groups have partnered with the organization, named for a Sanskrit word meaning selfless service, Desai said.

Additionally, the Houston and Dallas branches of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce partnered to raise funds for ventilators, Ahluwalia said. The organization secured donations and purchased dozens of ventilators that the U.S. government obtained when the pandemic was overwhelming New York last spring, he said.

The group shipped 20 ventilators on Tuesday to the Indian Red Cross in Delhi, which will distribute the equipment to hospitals, and this week plans to send 30 more.

“We are proud of the way the Indian diaspora across the globe, and the communities we live in, have come together,” Ahluwalia said.

Texas has the second largest population of Indian Americans, behind California, with nearly half a million people, according to Asian American Pacific Islander Data. The Houston metro area was home to the eighth largest community of Indian immigrants in 2018, with 88,000 people accounting for 1.3% of the population, according to Census data.

“It’s really hitting home,” said Naushad Kermally, a Sugar Land City Council member. “Even though it’s happening there in India, there’s a lot of folks here in Sugar Land and Houston area, and the U.S. for that matter, that have family overseas living in India.”

In a Wednesday letter to President Biden, Fort Bend County Judge KP George urged the U.S. to initiate emergency measures to aid India. Roughly 100,000 residents in his county have ties to India, George said.

“Over the last few weeks, family members of thousands and thousands of my constituents are facing death and serious illness,” wrote George, who grew up in a small village in South India. “It is because of my constituents and our interconnected communities that I write this letter.”

Manisha Gandhi, a member of the board of directors for Hindus of Greater Houston, said her phone is flooded with texts and WhatsApp messages from friends across the U.S. whose Indian relatives are searching for hospital beds, oxygen or other medical treatment.

Some people are returning to India to care for sick family members or perform last rites for their parents, Gandhi said. However, flights are limited, and the U.S. issued an advisory urging people to avoid travel to India.

Fear and anxiety are prevalent among the Indian American community, she said. The diverse community has come together, regardless of political or religious affiliations, to contribute to relief efforts. Some people are praying, at home and at temples across Houston, she said.

“We’re all worried about what’s going to happen,” Gandhi said. “When will it end?”

The explosive situation caught many off guard. The pandemic appeared to be stable in India, with roughly 15,000 new cases and 100 deaths reported each day in early March. People gathered for massive political rallies and religious festivals.

Then, early this month, the virus erupted.

“We thought things were under control, but I think everyone got caught my surpise, including the goverment of India,” Bhutada said. “They were flat-footed, so to say.”

In a Sunday address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told citizens to get vaccinated and be cautious, Reuters reported.

Bhutada, founder and CEO of Star Pipe Products, temporarily shuttered his company’s manufacturing facility in the Indian state of Gujarat when a handful of employees fell ill. He arranged for free meals and COVID-19 protections for his workers. Some have lost loved ones, he said.

In text messages, Bhutada has tried to remind his grieving employees to stay positive, even as he struggles to do the same.

In his own family, Bhutada said no one knows how his brothers-in-law, a farmer and retired school teacher, became infected. The men, ages 58 and 64, both died in hospitals when their health rapidly deteriorated. Their wives were not permitted to view the bodies.

“Fortunately, in the Hindu philosophy we believe in reincarnation,” he said. “This is the only way you can find solace in a situation like this.”

Amid the onslaught of calamitous news, Bhutada read an Indian news report about an 85-year-old man who gave up his hospital bed for a younger COVID-19 patient. The elderly man died days later. The story has circulated on social media and in Indian media outlets.

“When you think about someone sacrificing his life, for the life of somebody else…tears came to my eyes,” Bhutada said. “The best of mankind can also show in crisis.”

Still, the man who believes there is a reason behind everything keeps pondering one question.

Though he has grasped at explanations for the pandemic — lessons about taking care of each other or simplifying life — Bhutada said he has come up short of an answer.

“Regarding this pandemic,” he said, “I’m not able to answer why the humanity had to go through this kind of huge suffering.”


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