South Asian relatives in B.C. look on helplessly as COVID-19 overwhelms India

·3 min read
Neeraj Walia holds his phone, which displays a photograph of him and his mother. Walia says she is isolating in her room in northern India to try to stay safe from the coronavirus, which has infected several members of their family. (CBC News - image credit)
Neeraj Walia holds his phone, which displays a photograph of him and his mother. Walia says she is isolating in her room in northern India to try to stay safe from the coronavirus, which has infected several members of their family. (CBC News - image credit)

People in B.C. with ties to India are feeling anxious and helpless as family members there struggle to stay safe and get treatment for COVID-19, cases of which are now increasing by more than 300,000 every day.

Neeraj Walia, who lives in Surrey and is the director of a local food bank, says his days are full of frustration and worry about his family in northern India.

One relative died of COVID-19 six days ago and some of his cousins are now infected with the coronavirus. He's most worried about his 70-year-old mother, who is trying to stay safe by isolating in her room.

"She's not able to go outside because of the fear that she may be infected," Walia said.

The anxiety over the wave of infections sweeping India is only growing. There were 349,691 confirmed infections over one day this past weekend, which brought India's total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States.

The country's health ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in 24 hours over the weekend, pushing fatalities in the country to 192,311.

Stories of a health-care system overwhelmed, with life-saving oxygen in short supply, are being broadcast around the world as families in India scramble to try to take matters into their own hands by caring for sick family members.

Last Thursday, Canada barred passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days due to the growing number of cases.

Patients with COVID-19 are given oxygen as a part of a public service for those in need by a gurdwara in Delhi on April 24.
Patients with COVID-19 are given oxygen as a part of a public service for those in need by a gurdwara in Delhi on April 24.(Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

'So helpless'

Sukhmeet Singh Sachal is one of many British Columbians looking on helplessly as the crisis unfolds.

He has kept in touch with his cousin over the phone, who told him their entire family has COVID-19 and are struggling as nearby hospitals are unable to meet the demand for oxygen tanks and beds.

"I feel so helpless that I can't do anything for my family in India," said Sachal, a medical student who has been co-ordinating teams of volunteers to provide COVID-19 education in Surrey's Sikh gurdwaras.

"Hospitals are turning away people because they just don't have the capacity and, honestly, it's breaking my heart."

Sukhmeet Singh Sachal says his cousin told him their entire family in India has COVID-19. He wants countries like Canada to do more to help with the crisis there.
Sukhmeet Singh Sachal says his cousin told him their entire family in India has COVID-19. He wants countries like Canada to do more to help with the crisis there.(Doug Kerr/CBC)

His family is one of many trying to procure its own oxygen. He said a cylinder usually sells for the equivalent of around $8 in India, but now cost up to $800 on the black market.

"And that's what she has had to pay," he said about his cousin.

International aid

Many people are laying the blame for the surge in infections on the Indian government, which is now asking for a ramp-up in the production of oxygen and life-saving drugs.

The United States says it is sending supplies and support to India, as is neighbouring Pakistan.

Sachal says he hopes other nations, including Canada, will also step up.

"I think it is vital for governments around the world, for the United Nations, to step up to really try to help the people in India to fight this crisis," he said.

Efforts to combat COVID-19 will be discussed at the first in-person G7 meeting in two years in London starting May 3. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau will attend the summit.