Since March 2019, the pandemic has hit the world unlike no other.
India became the global center of a new pandemic wave during the second phase, which made the country’s health system almost collapse. The second pandemic wave dominated by the Delta variant, which is now sweeping the world, started in India. The government had to close its borders because of the pandemic, banning all scheduled international flights in March 2020.
On April 30, 2020, President Biden signed a proclamation to suspend the entry of Indian citizens into the United States.
The magnitude and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Republic of India were surging; the country accounted for over one third of new global cases, and the number of new infections in India was accelerating rapidly. There have been around 32.5 million infections and 436,365 deaths as of August 26. These official COVID-19 figures in India grossly understate the accurate scale of the pandemic in the country.
The United States has advised its citizens against all but essential travel there, and most airlines have massively reduced or suspended flights to India.
The government of India screens all arrivals from abroad, and anyone showing symptoms goes to a medical facility. Land borders are closed, other than for returning Indian nationals. All travelers must upload a self-declaration form on the Air Suvidha Portal, as well as a negative PCR test that was taken within 72 hours of the journey. They must also declare via the portal that they will quarantine at home for 14 days on arrival.
The situation in Odisha, my home state, has not been any rosier. Every day I have heard sad news—friends both young and old have succumbed to COVID-19. The state’s daily spike touched an all-time high, with 8,681 persons testing positive for coronavirus at the end of April 2021.
I was getting anxious to visit my 86-year-old mother, who I had not seen since December 2019. Usually, I stay with her for a couple of months every year. It was impossible to travel in 2020, which has become a blur.
In the last few years, I have been visiting my mother in Odisha every year. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make that trip since December 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This August, I finally got to spend a few weeks with her. I decided to embark on the trip. despite the rising cases in India, and the growing risk of a third wave, I was hell-bent on seeing my 86-year-old mother, and it was the most compelling reason for me to travel to India. In Cuttack, my mother was getting anxious as well.
After a hip and femur fracture in the last six years, my mother uses a walker around the house and has full-time help. For her, Covid is frustrating—her children have not been able to visit her, and she hears depressing news on the television. Her long-term caretaker, Prasanna, is fully vaccinated; while Mita, the other caretaker, isn’t.
Given Mita’s unvaccinated status, I was in two minds—to stay with my mother or commute. I decided to stay with her. First thing, I took Mita to get vaccinated—a significant relief for her and all of us.
Septuagenarian Prasanna also complained of the 21-month gap since my last visit. We children have outsourced our responsibility of taking care of our parents to paid help. I felt morally responsible for being with them as a gesture of reassurance and support.
Seventy-two hours before my flight, I had to submit a negative virus test result. I took three tests at three different testing sites to ensure that I got my results on time. I was also nervous with all the mixed messages I was receiving about these tests. But when I got the test result on the morning of my trip, I was sure of my journey.
The United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Delhi was almost full. Passengers were required to wear a mask throughout the flight. After arriving in Delhi a little after midnight on August 9, I had to wait for my domestic connecting flight at 7 a.m.
Bhubaneswar airport was pretty quiet when my domestic flight arrived a little after 9 a.m. I had a ride to my beautiful home just 10 minutes from the airport. After almost two years, the coconut trees are full-grown, and there were lush betelnut trees and all kinds of flowers in the garden. The pipal tree next to my house was welcoming, and the dogs on the street were cheerful. The remodeling work on the pond in front of my house will be a significant tourist attraction.
After a quick bath, I took off to meet my mother in Cuttack, about 15 miles away.
COVID-19 and Dengue Havoc
When I arrived in Odisha, I realized that along with Covid, dengue was creating havoc in my home state. When I spoke with a friend, who was in the hospital suffering from dengue, she reprimanded me for making the trip. “Why are you here Anu,” she asked me. “Who asked you to come? At least you are in a safe place. Coming here, you have invited yourself into trouble.”
Her fears were justified. In India, Covid cases are rampant, even though many of them go unreported. Hospitals are out of capacity. My fears were compounded when another friend said she had got Covid because of her driver, who reported positive. She too ended up going to the hospital.
I panicked. Right away, I checked United Airlines and advanced my ticket to August 18, the first available date to return home.
I was in India for less than three weeks. And I worried that if I would get sick, and end up in the hospital, it would put my mother at risk. Despite my fear, I was aware that I had come all the way to spend time with her. I was prepared for the worst and decided to take all precautions to stay the planned three weeks. I canceled my advance flight and ended up paying a heavy penalty.
The hospital situation in Odisha is dismal. One has to have “connections” to get into a reputed nursing home. Public hospitals are overcrowded, and only people without financial means end up going there.
As a patient, my friend Nalanda* told me that “the hospital situation is horrible.” She took her husband, whose sodium was low, for a check-up to a local hospital. Since no private room was available, Nalanda’s husband stayed in a general ward with other patients suffering from dengue and Covid. Both the diseases are highly contagious.
After her husband recovered, she got Dengue and admitted herself to the same hospital. Her daughter, who teaches at a university about 250 km away, came to be by her side. Her daughter went to pick up the prescribed medicine at the hospital dispensary and realized that her mother’s prescription did not match her ailments. Her mother never complained of gas, indigestion, or sleeplessness. So, she checked with the nurse on duty and discovered that the nurse had mixed up her mother’s prescriptions with another patient. The situation is indeed chaotic. The nurses are not well-trained and are high-handed.
Another friend shared a tragic experience. Her father’s health condition became worse at a local private hospital. She found out that the hospital had stopped his medication for the preexisting conditions, and he almost died. Her husband, being a medical doctor, brought him back home and took over his care.
Another friend from California was lamenting how her brother-in-law was admitted into the hospital for Covid. The doctors mistreated him and put him in the ICU. The family received his dead body without any further explanation for his death.
I could relate to the above. In the fall of 2018, my mother fell and broke her femur bone. I had the most traumatizing experience of taking her to a public hospital and then transporting her to one of the best private hospitals. I felt the healthcare workers are less trained and are unprofessional. The main focus was to extract money from the patients for their treatment. Even with our American resources, I realized the bill for the surgery and seven-day stay at the hospital was quite excessive. I wondered about the predicament of the less fortunate without any medical insurance who spend their lifelong earnings on medical care. They mortgage their land, house, and get into the clutches of money lenders to take care of their near and dear ones.
Currently, the hospitals are full. Those suffering from Covid, dengue, and other ailments are all put in the same ward. A room meant for two beds now accommodates six with the increasing number of sick people.
The Situation in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar
People are lax about wearing masks. The schools and offices have just reopened, and the lockdown is practiced during the weekends. On August 15, India’s Independence Day, COVID-19 was not the central focus in both the Indian prime minister’s and Odisha’s chief minister’s speech.
One day, with the curfew on, I hired a cycle rickshaw to visit the Sarala Bhawan in Cuttack, dedicated to the 15th Century poet Sarala Das, well known for writing the Mahabharata in Odia language. Sarala Bhawan is a newly built three-storied building on Biju Pattnaik square, Cuttack.
My old-time memory of taking this human-drawn rickshaw to college in the 1970s and the 80s flashed back. The rickshaw driver, Chaitanya, had a towel as his face mask and was lovely. He took me to the building and waited to bring me back home. I was wearing a double mask. However, on the road, hardly anyone was wearing a mask. In most cases, it just dangled under the chin.
Prabhakar Swain, the founder president of this society, was welcoming. He was wearing the mask under his nose. He was delightful and offered me a cup of black tea. But I was nervous. I quickly collected the whole 10-volume set of Mahabharata and some other related texts. Chaitanya helped me buy some fresh produce on the roadside, brought from the nearby villages. Immediately after arriving home, I changed all my clothes and took a bath to sanitize my entire body.
My friend, a professor at a local university, says that even the doctors are not worried about wearing masks. Covid comes and goes. People have been attacked by Covid twice. It is treated like the flu, and people take medicine for a cure. The older generation, especially in the middle class, is a little more paranoid of their safety. The young people are not. Youth under 18 are not even eligible for the vaccine.
I had a few visitors during my visit, like my friend Archana Kumar, who came to Cuttack from Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, braving the Covid scare. It was her first flight after one and a half years. It touched me. Both of us were wearing masks throughout, stayed home, and chatted. It felt like old times.
Archana and I met at a BHU conference a few years ago and became friends. In the last several years, I always visited her and her university in Varanasi. When someone questioned her coming “all the way” to see me, she answered: “Annapurna came from the U.S. to Odisha. What is the big deal for me to come from Varanasi, 1,200 km away?” I treasure this mutual love, sisterhood, and fellow feeling tied to my homeland.
During my time with my mother, I asked her if she missed her children. “Yes! I feel lonely without you all,” she replied. When I asked her if she wishes to be around us, she quickly responded: “No, I am happy that I have able (jogya) children. Wherever you are, be satisfied.”
Although she was happy with my visit, she complained that it was too short. “This time, you stayed for a very little time.” I am aware that any number of days I stay with her is too little. But at the same time, I am aware that her joy knows no bounds when we visit her. She is happy that we are successful and stay connected with her.
As anticipated, my time with my mother was coming to an end, and I had to begin packing for my flight back.
On August 25, I had to get my Covid test done to show a negative PCR test within 72 hours of boarding my flight back to the United States. I was getting anxious and nervous. I had an appointment with the BMC Covid testing team. The lab technician donned his protective white bodysuit, gloves, and face shield and stuck the probe high up my nose and mouth. I was gagging.
I waited eagerly for my Covid report. The day before my departure, the report came out negative. What a relief!
Two days later, on August 27, I drove back to the airport, past packed roadside eateries, sweet stalls, and the roads bulging with people.
I felt beyond grateful for the time with my mother. And I wondered how long it would be before I might be able to travel to visit her again.