India is in a COVID-19 crisis. South Asian-Canadians are weeping from afar, but also seeing devastating parallels for our people in Ontario

Captures well some of the dilemmas facing diaspora communities:

11,627 km.

That’s the distance from my house in Peel to Delhi, India, where the majority of my family lives.

This past week has been extremely difficult as a first generation Canadian born in India. I watch the devastation occurring in my hometown, and can’t help but see the parallels happening here in Ontario within the South Asian community. Immigrants like myself are fighting two pandemics – one here and one tens of thousands kilometres away, and it weighs heavily, each and every day.

On March 23, India had 40,000 COVID-19 cases. Fastforward to April 22, that number rose to 330,000. This is what exponential growth looks like. Experts believe these numbers are vastly under-reported by a margin of at least 10 times. Even if 10 per cent of these were hospitalized, with the average COVID-19 related hospital or ICU stay being 15 days, there is simply no healthcare system in the world that has the capacity to sustain such volume.

The situation in India is grave and complex. India saw a sharp decline in cases earlier this year, with around 10,000 cases on average per day in February. This unfortunately led to a sense of complacency, with some experts claiming preemptively that the country had achieved herd immunity. Subsequently, life returned to a form of “normalcy,” with weddings, religious festivals and political rallies being commonplace. Even Kumbh Mela, which is one of the largest gatherings in the world that sees upwards of 110 million people over the duration of the festival and up to 30 million people per day, went ahead as planned.

Complacency, however, wasn’t the only factor that led us to this situation. It’s a culmination of other factors. India has one of the lowest testing capacities per capita, with only 0.4 tests conducted per 10,000 people. India also has a much slower vaccination program. While India has manufactured large quantities of vaccines, it has distributed the majority of these globally. It is one of the largest suppliers into the COVAX program, accounting for 60 per cent of global vaccine supply. Meanwhile, less than 10 per cent of India’s own population has received one dose of the vaccine, with only 1 per cent fully vaccinated with two doses.

In addition, India now has a potentially concerning new variant, B.1.617, that amongst many mutations has two critical ones — L452R and E484Q — within the spike protein, making it more transmissible and possibly able to evade pre-existing immunity. It is still unknown whether vaccines are efficacious against this variant.

The stories, pictures and videos coming out of India are devastating. Scenes of people lying on the ground on the street with oxygen masks connected to empty tanks, dying outside of hospitals that did not have capacity to take them in, health care systems collapsing. There are make-shift outdoor hospitals, mass cremations sites, and reports of families having to keep dead bodies of relatives at home for two days because there was no wood left to build a funeral pyre. Hospital with mere hours left of oxygen supply.

Many in the South Asian diaspora are carrying the burden of knowing our own family members are amongst those affected. My father, who lives with me, spends his entire day calling each and every one of his family and friends. So many infected, many hospitalized, many searching for hospitals. Daily updates, sometimes hourly. Everytime he utters Hari Om Tat Sat (a sanskrit mantra) I wait with baited breath. I feel helpless remembering we are again, 11,627 km, apart — a number I can’t stop thinking about.

What hurts my heart even more is knowing that what is occurring to my people in India is also occurring here on Canadian soil. South Asians have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The pandemic has been deeply inequitable, from support and protections to testing and now access to vaccines. Further, we are seeing additional stigmatization of South Asians due to this new variant now being found in Canada despite the fact that the primary reason for transmission remains to be structural barriers faced by our racialized communities. And like me, they are dealing with two pandemics — the one here and the one back home.

It really feels like because our skin is brown, our lives mean less. But we didn’t get to choose the colour of skin we were born into our socioeconomic status. We didn’t get to choose the country we were born in.

It was heartbreaking to see the world’s response to India’s crisis. Canada shut its borders. Simultaneously, our Premier’s office contacted the Indian high commissioner to request additional AstraZeneca vaccines in spite of the current crisis. The United States of America continues to sit on unused AstraZeneca vaccines and withhold raw materials required for India to manufacture more vaccines. This ‘me first’ strategy is not only inequitable, it is unwise because we know how the pandemic unfolds in one country will eventually happen in another.

And this is why vaccine nationalism is lethal. Your access to vaccines and subsequent right to life is dependent on factors that are out of your control. It is the stark inequities, the perpetuation of discrimination, the haves vs the have nots, the unfairness of it all that weighs heavily on me.

India gasps for air and burns with funeral pyres. But these lives don’t seem to matter. Because they’re brown.

I can’t stop crying. Because my heart can’t take it anymore.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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