Coronavirus: ‘My entire family is in India - it is very scary’

Northern Ireland is home to thousands of Indian people, many of whom have family living in areas overwhelmed by the pandemic. HELEN MCGURK hears from three people about their fears for loved ones in a country devastated by the virus

By Helen McGurk
Saturday, 8th May 2021, 7:00 am
Nisha Tandon
Nisha Tandon

Whilst life is starting to return to some sort of normality here in Northern Ireland, Covid-19 infections and deaths are mounting with alarming speed in India

Television coverage of the pandemic has been hard to watch; scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky.

India reported a new daily record of 414,188 confirmed cases and 3,915 additional deaths on Friday. The official daily death count has stayed over 3,000 for the past 10 days.

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Susan Gillen with her father Dr John Mathai

That takes the total to more than 21.4 million Covid-19 infections and over 234,000 deaths, and experts say those are undercounts.

It is only a couple of weeks since Nisha Tandon lost her brother-in-law to Covid-19 in India and her pain is still very raw.

Nisha said the 60-year-old, who had worked in travel and tourism and lived in Bahrain, recently retired and moved back home to live in Bangalore in southern India.

Sadly, he contracted coronavirus in March and was hospitalised.

Dr Satyavir Singhal

Speaking from her home in south Belfast, Nisha said: “The care in the ICU wasn’t the care which one would have expected.- even in the private hospitals.”

She said her sister had paid a “phenomenal amount of money” for his treatment, but added, “nothing could save him.”

“It was a terrible situation. The poor girl (her sister) had to go through hell.

“Even to get the death certificate and to get the paperwork sorted out has been a nightmare for her.

“The funeral she had to do all by herself - there was nobody there.”

Nisha Tandon is the founder and director of award-winning ethnic arts organisation, ArtsEkta and the creative force behind the Belfast Mela: an international showcase of music, dance, art, and food from more than 30 nations around the globe, held every summer in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. She was also the driving force behind the development of the Indian Community Centre in Belfast and in 2014 was awarded an OBE for services to the minority sector.

Originally from New Delhi, she came to Northern Ireland in 1977 as a young bride in an arranged marriage to Vijay, whose family first settled here in the 1950s.

Nisha said watching the television coverage of the pandemic sweep her native home is “just heartbreaking.”

“Being so far away you cannot really do anything. The only support you can give is moral support by a phone call or by emails or video calls.

“My entire family is in India. I am the only one who is here from my maternal side. From my father’s side I have cousins who are living in Birmingham.

“It is very scary. We keep in touch with every single member of the family; the older generation, we need to really worry about. There are so many cousins who are isolating and my aunties and uncles are isolating.

“It is a dire situation and the aftermath is going to be even worse than it is now. There are going to be a lot of children who will be left with no parents and a lot of fathers will be left with no sons and a lot of sons will be left with no fathers. Especially in the very remote villages where it has reached and obviously in cities you can see what is happening they are showing it on every single news.

“People are helpless - we saw it here and our hearts broke, while our systems here are much more robust. When you see the systems over there (in India) your heart breaks.”

Nisha added there have been a lot of deaths in the Indian community in Northern Ireland due to Covid, but these have not been widely reported on.

ArtsEkta has teamed up with the Isha Foundation to help raise funds for the devastating impact of Covid 19 in India.

“It is a really, really bad situation in India and we have started to do a little bit of fundraising.

“Whatever anyone can give, every little will help. It will go to the people who need support. Robin Swann has been really good sending three containers of oxygen from NI, but then remember India was also sending vaccinations to Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.”

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Susan Gillen (formerly Mathai) lives in Jordanstown and tries to avoid watching television coverage of the pandemic in India.

“It is so distressing, it’s like a horror film,” she said.

Susan’s anguish is compounded by the fact her 83-year-old father, Dr John Mathai, is currently “trapped” in Kerala.

“My father was a consultant geriatrician in Northern Ireland for many years and when he retired in 2002 he went to live in London.

“The whole year of isolation in London made him decide he would go to India for the winter. He left in November and he was due to come back on St Patrick’s Day, but because of his age he didn’t feel he would survive the quarantine when he returned to London, so he decided to stay on in India.

“Obviously he wants to come back, but who knows when that is going to happen now with India on the red list for travel. We can’t get out to visit there, which is frustrating and upsetting. What can you do from so far away?”

Susan FaceTimes her father quite often and said he is “quite calm and collected” about the situation.

“He’s also quite circumspect about not travelling around or meeting too many people - he’s sensible. He’s not in a high state of fright or distress, but he’s very upset watching the other states, like the Punjab, which are in a really terrible way.”

The Mathai family have many relatives in the state of Kerala, but Susan said thankfully none of them has died or become very unwell from Covid.

“There are a lot of cases in Kerala at the moment, but they seem to have enough oxygen supplies and were better prepared than a lot of other states.”

But, she believes the crisis across India has been “terribly mismanaged”.

“Indian weddings, religious festivals involving huge gatherings and raucous election rallies involving crowds were all permitted to take place just before the second wave There doesn’t seem to have been measures put in place in the event of a second wave - the feeling was that they had survived the first one, so it didn’t seem to have been a big priority for the governments,”

She added:“India was producing vaccines for the whole world and now it’s an embarrassing situation where they are having to rely on foreign aid to pull them out of this hole which they didn’t really have to be in if they had been prepared.”

Dr Satyavir Singhal BEM, a consultant anaesthetist with the Belfast Trust, moved from Delhi to Northern Ireland 20 years ago.

Now living in Newtownabbey, he has been watching the coverage of the horrific devastation Covid-19 is causing in his homeland and, naturally, worries about his relatives there.

“Sitting here you feel absolutely heartbroken and helpless. There is not a single member of the family who has been spared. Two who were caught in the pandemic, one from my wife’s side, her brother’s wife - they couldn’t get a hospital bed, but we could buy an oxygen concentrator for her and medication, so she survived and she is out of the woods now.”

Dr Singhal said the oxygen concentrator he bought for his sister-in-law would normally cost about £275-300, but he paid £3,000, because of a shortage.

“My sister’s husband is still in the hospital and my classmate lost both his parents a day apart.”

Dr Singhal said he and colleagues in Northern Ireland are liaising with the medical fraternity in India.

“They are still learning and hopefully we can guide them in terms of our experience of treatments or in terms of finding a hospital bed.”

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