Bedford’s Indian Community Fears for Relatives, Friends As Pandemic Rages
“We are sitting here praying for everyone.”
Tanuja Sud has lived in Bedford for more than 20 years, but this week she is focused on desperate conditions in the land where she was born, just like many other Bedford residents with relatives and friends in India.
The pandemic has returned to India with a rampaging ferocity. Every three days there are a million new cases. Hospitals are out of oxygen. Cremation equipment is literally melting from overuse.
Sud has family members throughout the country. Her parents are in the state of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. “I call them every three or four days, just trying to stay on top of the situation.” There’s a group of cousins on WhatsApp in different parts of the country “posting news and information about what’s happening.”
Sud is incredulous about the depth of the crisis. “I am so shocked to hear how many people I know who have tested positive. It’s really hard over there and everybody in a panic right now. I am horrified.”
Hima Naidu’s father is a retired general surgeon in Hyderabad. He retired “overnight” several months ago, she said. Now his two children, both in the U.S., have told their parents not to leave the house. “Dad believes it’s a new variant because even vaccinated people are getting sick. That’s a scary thing for him to say,” she said, adding, “It’s only a matter of time before it comes over.”
“I have panic attacks – my parents are all by themselves there,” Naidu continued. Many in the younger population have emigrated, she said, “and the parents and aunts and uncles are by themselves. It’s nerve-wracking to think I can’t even get on a plane if something happens,” noting that airlines like British and Emirates have suspended flights to the subcontinent.
Karthikeyan Ramu has lived in Bedford since 2012; his parents, siblings, and many other relatives are still in India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Ramu said his parents are diabetic and don’t leave their home. They haven’t taken the vaccine and “I’m not sure they want to.”
Ramu said a disproportionate number of impoverished people are victims of the virus. People who are well off are admitted to private hospitals “when they get any small symptom,” using precious resources. “We are hearing of people who have lost their livelihoods, daily workers,” Sud agreed. “People are hungry, and being thrown out of their homes.”
“Vegetable vendors, smaller shopkeepers, they have to open up and talk to people, and there’s no government assistance – you have to figure out how to live,” Naidu said. “They can’t do a second lockdown. How is the population going to sustain without assistance?”
After the first wave of the virus receded, Naidu said, “India relaxed restrictions on group gatherings. And the vaccine response wasn’t great. People said, ‘Whatever – this is gone, why should I bother?’” February is the beginning of the wedding season; there were some super-spreader events, she said. Ultimately a much more serious wave arrived.
“The moment the government lifted restrictions starting in July and August, people became careless,” Naidu said. “I was seeing social media posts of people going to restaurants – people were shopping and they just had a lax attitude about it. I would caution stay home and many did but I know many didn’t. You’d see people breaking the rules.”
Naidu said her family and her parents would alternate visits each year; they were last in Bedford in 2018. But since the arrival of Covid-19, “we just never found a safe time to travel. And my dad said, ‘I don’t want any of you coming and I don’t feel safe traveling.’ That’s the case for a lot of people. This is the longest I have not seen my parents since 1997.”
Ramu said he visited family every year. “Now we don’t know when we will be able to go.” They convene every other weekend for a conference call (the time difference is nine-and-a-half hours ahead). My parents want to talk to my kids,” who are now in high and middle schools.
Sud said she would bring her children to India every other year for a couple of months. Her children are grown, and over the last three years, she has made three trips, the last one ending on March 5, 2020, just before the lockdown began in Massachusetts.
“Last summer I was so happy to see that the lockdown had helped and people were behaving themselves. Cases were so low and [I] was so happy India was being spared,” she said.
Vijaya and Ram Gunturi are the parents of Lalitha Ranganath of Bedford. For the past several years they have spent a few winter months in Bedford and Newton with their daughters and their families. But this time the virus precluded their return, and now they have been away from home for well over a year.
“Now the situation is very, very bad. Every day we hear all the hospitals are full and not able to help any patients. There is also a shortage of vaccine,” Mr. Gunturi reported.
Mr. and Mrs. Gunturi are natives of India who came to the U.S. for their careers in 1983. They lived in the Dallas area for some 30 years, and after their two daughters were grown decided to return to India and help people in need. “It was a life full of challenges and accomplishments, and we wanted to go back to our native country to retire and contribute to the local community,” Mrs. Gunturi said.
“We felt if we get vaccinated it will be relatively safe for us to return,” Mrs. Gunturi continued. Now they are waiting for their second shot; they are targeting the second week of June for their departure. “We want to live our lives in India while being cautious.” Her husband added, “We are feeling incomplete. When people are in need we are here.”
Their home is about 150 miles from the city of Hyderabad in southern India. Covid cases there have been escalating daily; Mr. and Mrs. Gunturi have lost close family members and friends to the virus. “It has been emotionally very upsetting because we are so far away and we are not able to be with them,” she said. “We are going through emotional ups and downs.”
“In this latest wave, some family members got infected. By God’s grace they are recovering,” she continued. “But it’s really devastating to be so far from home and our extended family.”
Mr. Gunturi said that based on information he has gleaned from family and friends, the country made several mistakes, like allowing large religious meetings and political rallies. Also, people between the ages of 18 and 35 are ignoring protocols, he said. The rallies “absolutely contributed, with thousands of people and no masks, no social distancing,” Sud commented.
“Very few people were wearing masks at weddings,” she continued. “People started vacationing. Seeing all this was just very disturbing. The government did make an effort to start vaccinating people but it’s a huge task.” Eventually “they ran out of raw materials to make more vaccine. They’re dealing with a shortage of oxygen. It just seems like such a mess over there right now.”
Mr. Gunturi said, “They felt they had surplus vaccine so they exported to Nepal, to Egypt, to Spain, and other countries.” Now with the second wave of the virus,” everybody is rushing to get vaccinated. But there is no production. They can’t meet demand.”
Ramu was sympathetic to the plight of the government. The pandemic would be “a challenge for any government. This has never been seen in history.” He acknowledged, however, that in India the administration “took it easy after the first wave. Scientists were saying there was herd immunity.” He also cited the campaign rallies with “people everywhere.” He added, “After this, I’m sure they will be more careful and will be very well prepared.”
“This new surge could be a new mutant variant,” Sud professed. “But people have themselves to blame too.”
The Gunturis are frustrated because there’s not much they can do to help. “We moved to India to support the community,” he said. “We are not worried financially. Time is the most valuable thing.”
“We work with low-income, disadvantaged children there, and health care workers,” he related. “We want to be part of the community, to continue what we are doing. We go to our village 20 miles away every Sunday and teach children, encourage them to learn computer skills. There’s a pre-clinic; the doctors see 250-300 patients. We sponsor, with our friends, free medications. Everything is by volunteers.”
“Wherever you live, try to get involved in the community,” said Gunturi. “Try to understand people less privileged than you and try to be a compassionate citizen – even if it’s only for at least 15-20 minutes once a week. Get involved.”
“People don’t understand how lucky we are,” Naidu said. “Compared to the rest of the world we are doing a lot more. Who knew a virus would bring the world to its knees?”
Sud declared, “We sit here and count our blessings.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763