Feature: ‘Endless howls into the void’: Those with family in India watch and worry

Alison Bowen

The last time Neha Kaul Mehra was in her hometown of New Delhi was in October 2019 for Diwali.

She and her family decorated the house, cooked a feast and gave out gifts. A few months later, she and her parents, who are scientists, watched news coming out of Wuhan, China, anticipating the novel virus would impact whether they could see one another ahead of expected lockdowns.

Since then, a pandemic emerged, travel became impossible and she has not seen family members abroad for more than a year.

Adding to that heartbreak has been watching from afar as India faces a deadly COVID-19 wave. The country’s count of COVID-19 cases doubled in three months, even as officials believe the true number of cases and deaths to be higher than counted. The White House has pledged help to the country.

“It’s stressful trying to keep up with what’s going on, trying to be helpful,” Mehra said.

For the Andersonville neighborhood resident, as for many in Chicago worried about family abroad, the situation has been wrenching.

Seema Mehdi was hoping to introduce her baby to grandparents by now. Medhi lives in suburban Elk Grove Village with her husband and children; both her and her husband’s parents are in India. Beyond worrying about them, the separation has been hard as they were hoping the grandparents would be able to visit Illinois this month and finally meet their grandbaby.

Meanwhile, they worry about any symptom they hear of in a family member.

“The moment anybody’s coughing at home it’s like, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen?’” she said.

To help those in India, many Illinois residents have been gathering donations to help buy things like oxygen. For Mehra, trying to help has been cathartic. She gathered friends who are savvy with policy and data analytics to coordinate help online. When it became apparent that the country was going to be wrestling with a bad wave of infections, she joined others trying to collect assistance for resources. Many are frustrated with the government as people are facing issues finding bottled oxygen, hospital beds or COVID-19 tests.

Even helping with that eventually has taken a toll. Mehra has had to take breaks from looking at Instagram, Twitter, the news.

“It just felt like these endless howls into the void,” she said. “Seeking help, seeking guidance, seeking resources, it just felt overwhelming because it’s just so many people and you can’t help all of them.”

Family members on both her mother’s and her father’s sides have had COVID-19, from those in their 80s to a baby. It took about an entire month for them to get over the illnesses, she said.

She monitors the news, and she worries.

“I don’t even know what to call it. It almost feels like resignation at this point of just how bad this wave is, and it’s just going to keep crashing over,” she said.

Farah Manjiyani, who has immediate family in the U.S. and extended family in India, said it has been surreal to see restrictions and cases ease in the States while the pandemic gets worse elsewhere.

“The situation there is so much more intense,” the Lakeview resident said.

Making it harder is that information and resources are limited, as is the ability to offer support should someone like her grandmother become ill.

“There’s very little we can do about it if something happens,” she said. “We can’t go over there and help, we can’t ask people to go over and help because we don’t know what kind of situations they live in. It’s been intense.”

She feels this experience is “just a reminder that we’re connected.”

“Things are OK here in the U.S. and they’re getting better, but at the same time your entire family is spread out, and that’s not the case everywhere,” she said. — Courtesy Chicago Tribune

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