I arrived in the United States in March 2020—just in time for the birth of our first grandchild. I was scheduled to return to India in June but as the pandemic raged on, I kept postponing my flight. Finally, after fourteen months as a Covid refugee, I got my second dose of the vaccine and booked my ticket home for April 30. Then the pandemic blew up in India.
I’ve lived in India for more than forty years. My husband and two of our three children were born there; our youngest is buried there. My work and many of my closest friends are there too, and my own life and future is inextricably tied to its turbulent, chaotic present.
Every morning for the past ten days I have been waking in California with a feeling of dread. The pharmacist who was interviewed on NBC one day last week about the shortage of drugs is the one I buy medicine from when I am in Delhi. The hospital in Mumbai where the dead are piling up is on the street where my in-laws lived. I understand what the rickshaw drivers are saying about their desperate, gasping passengers before the voiceover cuts in to translate. India is my home and it is on the brink of collapse.
Today my husband and I spent hours on the phone (he in India, I in the United States) finding a hospital bed for his Covid-positive brother in Pune—four hours south of Mumbai—who was struggling to breathe. We felt a huge relief when Rakesh was finally transferred by ambulance. “It feels so nice to breathe,” my brother-in-law messaged me from the hospital.
We were also relieved to hear that the BJP, currently the ruling party in India, had been trounced in midterm elections in three states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been to India what Donald Trump was to the United States: a malevolent force intent on amassing power at any cost, leaving misery and destruction in his wake. He taps into the worst of the human spirit with unerring precision, resurrecting old grievances and pitting communities against each other in an effort to strengthen his political base of Hindu nationalists. And, like Trump, Modi has ignored the responsibilities of governing. During his tenure, already-weak public institutions have been further undermined, while incompetent and dishonest sycophants have been put in charge of massive departments they have no idea how to run. The apocalyptic scenes we are witnessing in India right now are inevitable in a vast country with no functioning public health-care system.
India got off lightly in Covid’s first wave. Widely expected to be one of the world’s worst-hit countries, India had fewer reported cases than the United States or the United Kingdom, and most of those infected survived. Less than five months ago Modi was proudly boasting at the World Economic Forum in Davos about his country’s excellent infrastructure and Covid-preparedness. He even claimed that India had “saved humanity” by containing the virus.