“Girls, we need Remdesivir. Sir is on a ventilator in intensive care,” says a WhatsApp message.
Our chat group attended the “best” convent in the most backward Indian state of Bihar, where the power was mostly out and the toilets never worked. But we always had one thing going for us: the teachers who treated us like important people, imparting an uncommon self-belief that we carried all the way into adulthood.
On my last visit there as a doctor, Sir, my physics teacher, tugged me into assembly. Employing selective memory, he described me as “an always good student”, but when I saw him beaming, I realised that his students really were his life’s work. I’d do anything to repay you, I thought silently. But Remdesivir? During a pandemic? Remdesivir would not have saved him even if we had been able to source any.
Sir died, with none of my doctor classmates able to help him. In a cruel irony, his untimely death would now be labelled “good”, for he had what tens of thousands of subsequent Covid patients would lack: a hospital bed, oxygen and sedation at the end of life.
Two weeks ago, our chats were benign, shared recipes and our kids’ stories. And then, overnight, this. Where do I get plasma? Who knows a hospital owner? And then, horror of horrors, who has oxygen? The mood changed in a flash. My brother is gasping. I am going to lose my sister. And my pregnant cousin, my diabetic husband, my frail mother. Death is one thing, but death from a lack of basic care is quite another. One is part of life, the other abject terror.
A doctor classmate posts a list of helpful phone numbers redundant by the time of publication. A distressed friend unfairly chastises her but at least they are words and not weapons because by now, the hospital corridors are blood-stained as angry patients turn on healthcare workers. Tears are replaced by panic, panic by terror. Dear God, what will happen to India?
The dilemma, the guilt
My childhood friend is a doctor in Mumbai. For 40 years, we have been each other’s anchor.
How is everyone? I venture to ask, scared to know.
Still breathing, she replies tersely.
How are you today? I ask the next day.
Twenty-five of her closest relatives are Covid positive. There is no oxygen and no hospital bed, even for the well-connected. She starts an Excel spreadsheet for her relatives to enter their oxygen saturations. And hires a driver to track down oxygen. If an elusive cylinder is found, he drives it to the neediest relative. If you don’t update the spreadsheet, you won’t get the oxygen.
It’s an extraordinary thing to decide whether to help your parents at the cost of your own life. Imagine the dilemma, picture the guilt.
Indians are desperate for funerals, firewood and sometimes, food. All 1.4 billion of them trapped in a trauma unimaginable some weeks ago when India seemed to have escaped the curse of Covid. When the crisis came face to face with a woeful public health system, the world saw what Indians know.
There is no lack of commentary. An effete government, complacent officials, and poor preparedness are being blamed. So too the Kumbh mela, election rallies and new virus strains. But as my friend says tersely, Indians are sick with Covid and tired of words. They need action.
Time for morality and solidarity
The Australian healthcare system relies heavily on Indian doctors who make up the world’s largest emigrant medical workforce. More than 5% of Australian doctors, 3% of specialists and 2.8% of nurses received their initial qualification in India but if one includes second-generation Indians, the number of health professionals of Indian heritage is significantly higher.
Collectively, we are experiencing a penetrating, raw grief like we have never known. From the safety of closed borders, treating a non-Covid population, we watch the daily struggles of our relatives and ask ourselves, “Had I been there, could I have made a difference?”
Realists may respond not really, at least not in the absence of resources, but making a difference isn’t just about saving lives; it is about holding hands, wiping tears and well, just being there. Instead, India looks forlorn amid a humanitarian crisis. What can we do to help?
For one, we can expect world leaders to do the right thing. When others suffered, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer stepped up and shipped millions of vaccines. Now it is our turn to switch on the moral compass. Australia can send supplies but importantly, it can be proportionate in its public response. It can evacuate its citizens and not penalise and criminalise Indians who proudly call Australia home. Staring at death is bad enough; what more “punishment” do Indians need?
Two, it’s time to park judgment. The world’s largest democracy knows how to respond at the ballot box: let Indians figure out what their government got wrong and let us focus on the present.
Finally, we can show solidarity. The global Indian diaspora of 18 million people, normally resilient, is pulsing with extraordinary fear and impotence. We are on chat groups, following Indian news, and praying for the tide to reverse even as more grief is predicted. The Indian call centre worker, taxi driver, doctor and diplomat all know someone dying. In such times, kindness and empathy go a long way. The other night someone said simply, “I am sorry.” It was the balm I needed.
The raucous cricket rivalry between India and Australia now seems a distant memory.
Many times, I’ve packed my flag and samosas and found a seat at the beautiful Melbourne Cricket Ground. Watching those proud and loud Indians grow delirious over every run and every catch makes me so happy that my mildly embarrassed children threaten I will be deported for treason. But everyone knows that we are not just cheering for Virat Kohli’s men but the country we left behind. It is our way of saying India, we miss you, we love you and while we are far away, we hold you close in our hearts.
I am not a sports fan but what I enjoy about the cricket is how Indians stubbornly hold on to hope in the direst of situations. The strains of India jeetega; jeetega, jeetega (India will win; will win, will win) echo to the beat of dhols (drums) until finally, there is nothing to do but inhale the atmosphere, admire the loud costumes and bask in the microcosm of a tolerant society. Oh, to return to the ridiculous simplicity of just wanting a victory on the pitch to feel good about being both Indian and Australian.
Humans are resilient and surely, there will be another such day but until then, let us hold the plight of Indians close in our hearts and do all that we can to ease the pain.