New Brunswick's Indian community watches as COVID-19 ravages home country

·6 min read
A view inside the temporary Covid Care Centre set up at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital in New Delhi.  (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images - image credit)
A view inside the temporary Covid Care Centre set up at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital in New Delhi. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images - image credit)

For Dr. Eshwar Kumar, watching the quickly expanding COVID-19 crisis in his home country has been a harrowing experience.

The oncologist, who has lived and practised in New Brunswick for almost 40 years, said one of the toughest things is to see the hospital system in India overwhelmed by COVID patients.

"Having trained in that system, we always had issues with overcrowding," Kumar said. "We are used to masses of humanity. But to see it now, with hospitals running out of oxygen … it's heart-wrenching and gut wrenching."

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, India had been doing remarkably well during the year-long pandemic.

After the second wave spiked in mid-September of 2020, with average daily cases around 90,000, the country had seen the caseload fall off steadily to about 10 per cent of that by early February of this year.

But mid-March held a surprise for public health officials with the arrival of variants of the disease.

Dr. Eshwar Kumar, an oncologist living in New Brunswick for almost 40 years, says it has been harrowing to watch what is happening with the COVID-19 crisis in his home country of India.
Dr. Eshwar Kumar, an oncologist living in New Brunswick for almost 40 years, says it has been harrowing to watch what is happening with the COVID-19 crisis in his home country of India.(CBC)

By Thursday of this week, the country was averaging more than 357,000 new cases a day.

The country's health-care system has been overwhelmed. There are reports of hospitals running out of oxygen, of people being treated in the backseat of ambulances because there is no other place to put them, and now vaccination centres are running out of vaccine.

With nearly 3.5 million active cases, and 208,000 deaths, things are only going to get worse.

As Kumar points out, those are just the reported cases, and he suspects many people who are sick enough that they should be in hospital are just staying home and hoping they don't get worse.

He has two siblings in Bengalaru, formerly known as Bangalore, in the south of the country. One is in their 80s and one is in their 90s, and both live alone.

"They're all safe, and they've been vaccinated," Kumar said. "They're lucky in that."

A woman with breathing problem waits inside an ambulance for her turn to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease in Ahmedabad, India.
A woman with breathing problem waits inside an ambulance for her turn to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease in Ahmedabad, India.(Amit Dave/Reuters)

But they still need help from the world outside their isolation bubble, and Kumar said he worries they could be exposed to the virus.

"It's a strange feeling," Kumar said about the experience of watching it all from afar, "It's a feeling of sadness, mixed with anxiety.

"The thing bothering me is you feel kind of helpless."

Somaditya Das has been in Saint John since 2016.

The IT professional came here when his wife was completing her master's degree at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.

His mother, extended family and friends are all in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, on the eastern side of the country.

Das said it is frustrating to see what is happening in India and be so far away.

Somaditya Das, an IT professional in Saint John, says that even in the small Indian community in New Brunswick, he knows people who have lost relatives in the COVID crisis in India.
Somaditya Das, an IT professional in Saint John, says that even in the small Indian community in New Brunswick, he knows people who have lost relatives in the COVID crisis in India. (Submitted Somaditya Das)

"There's not much we can do," said Das.

But, he has found one way to help. Because hospitals are so overwhelmed, people in India have set up Facebook pages to help notify people which hospitals have room for COVID patients, and have the ability to treat them.

Das has been monitoring these pages from New Brunswick and alerting friends and relatives to openings.

"I was awake to 4 a.m. one night trying to find a hospital. Eventually we got a trolley in an ER for them."

Das said his mother has been living alone in isolation for more than a year and has her first COVID-19 shot, so she is at least partially protected.

He worries about her "all the time" and said she's trying her best not to mix with people.

But, he said, it's not hard to find someone tragically affected by the crisis in India, even here in New Brunswick.

"We have a small community here. Even in our circle, I know people who have lost relatives, parents, in the past weeks."

Pooja Rajmohan came to New Brunswick last March to work at the Algonquin Resort in Saint Andrews. Six members of her family were recently hospitalized in India with COVID-19.
Pooja Rajmohan came to New Brunswick last March to work at the Algonquin Resort in Saint Andrews. Six members of her family were recently hospitalized in India with COVID-19.(Algonquin Resort)

Pooja Rajmohan, who has been working in the hotel business in Saint Andrews since last March, saw her family struck by the virus and hospitalized.

They are in central India.

Rajmohan told Information Morning Saint John her father, who is in his 70s, was the first to complain of headaches and breathlessness.

He was taken to hospital and soon, after her mother had to be admitted for breathing difficulties. Both had received their first dose of the vaccine.

Eventually her brother, who is just 42, his wife, and their two children also came down with symptoms.

"The scariest one was my brother sending me a message saying 'I'm feeling breathless, I've called for an ambulance,' because my brother took my parents into hospital," she said.

Overwhelming pictures

All but her mother had been discharged from hospital by Wednesday. She was still in intensive care.

Rajmohan said watching the events unfold in India can be difficult for her.

"I've kept myself away from TV as much as I can because there is a lot that's shown on TV which overwhelms you because we all have family groups and there is so much that goes on in the family group is enough … to make you feel overwhelmed."

Rajmohan has since been arranging grocery and meal deliveries to the family's home using the internet and long distance phone calls.

She said Canadians can take a lesson from India's experience.

"Do not help spreading this pandemic further. Take precautions. It is devastating to have a family member fall sick, let alone six of them fall sick."

"Just be careful, take care, understand this is real and it has wiped out families in my country."

Das hopes Canadians can "extend their helping hands to Indians," in the same way his home country helped the rest of the world by supplying vaccine in recent months.

He believes India's goal of offering vaccines to every adult by May won't be met.

"We don't have the infrastructure. I'm hoping that I'm wrong, but from my experience living in India, I don't think so."

Canadian relief

Kumar said India had "become somewhat complacent" in recent months.

"Perhaps what's happening in India should serve as a warning," he said.

But he and his wife have been overwhelmed by the response of people in their adopted home, he said.

"We love being in this community," Kumar said. "Just the concern we're getting from friends and neighbours, it brings tears to your eyes."

Canada has pledged $10 million to the Red Cross in aid for India.

The Canadian Red Cross has also launched a public fundraising appeal for India.