My mom has a small cough. She gets it now and then, usually allergies, likely made worse by the fact that she’s in Kashmir right now and spring is foisting pollen into her sinuses. No big deal. But of course, when I FaceTimed her a week ago and heard her soft wheeze, I burst into tears and started crying so hard that my husband had to take the phone and investigate further: Do you have a fever? How often do you cough? Is it a dry cough? Are you having trouble breathing? When was the last time you left the house? Has anyone else been in the house? Are you washing your hands and have you been touching your face? I spiraled into a panic attack and started to gently scream, loud enough that she could hear, until she replied, “Oh, calm down. I’m not going to die!” She and my dad laughed while I tucked my head between my legs and took some deep breaths.
My parents left Canada for India on March 1, a trip that was supposed to last just under a month. After a number of airlines began canceling flights because of the coronavirus outbreak, I called them and said that maybe it was time to come back early. But they declined because my parents are stubborn (I come by it honestly) — my dad still wanted to go to Jaipur to stay with his sister for a while and they had plans to continue traveling. They also didn’t leave because they weren’t fully aware of how bad the virus’s spread had become; their limited access to the internet and media in Jammu didn’t paint a full picture of the risk of staying.
When their original return flight, for March 30, was canceled, I wanted them to get on an earlier flight as soon as possible, but again, they refused. I called again after stay-at-home orders were implemented in New York on March 20, but by then, it was too late: On March 24, India implemented their own lockdown measures, far stricter than what my parents would have experienced in Canada had they gone home: Domestic and international travel is barred, airlines can’t operate, trains are halted, and though pharmacies and grocery stores are open, people are sometimes beaten by the police for going outside. They haven’t left my uncle’s house in 30 days at this point, since even before the lockdown, except once when my dad went to refill my mom’s arthritis medication and to get his insulin. My mom is unable to get one of her drugs, the same one everyone’s been taking because they think it helps cure COVID-19, and now my brother and I are trying to figure out how to send it to her even though the people I’ve spoken to in India say there hasn’t been any incoming international mail since the lockdown. (Through a Twitter callout, we’ve been able to locate one of her drugs, but we’re still struggling to find the hydroxychloroquine that makes her pain bearable.)
This is, suffice it to say, the most stress I’ve ever experienced, largely because I have absolutely no control over anything. And also because everything with my parents feels so precarious, like their lives are little wires that could get snipped at any minute. I wouldn’t even see it coming. I wouldn’t even be able to get to them in time to see it happen.
Everything with my parents feels so precarious, like their lives are little wires that could get snipped at any minute.
I don’t sleep anymore. With my parents in an opposite time zone from me, I sleep only a few hours at a time, waking in order to check my phone for bad news. So far they’re fine, and always annoyed about how overprotective I’m being. But at nearly 7,000 miles away, there’s very little I can do if they get sick, or worse. India, though the country where my entire family is from, recently denied me a visa for entry, so I wouldn’t even be able to reach them if I wanted to, COVID-19 or not.
Sometimes I search for the route between New York and Jammu on Google Maps and marvel at the distance between us. It seems insurmountable in every way. When I try to click for directions, Google reminds me it’s not possible: “Sorry, we could not calculate walking directions from ‘New York’ to ‘Jammu Cantonment.’”
I’m waiting for good news. We’ve called the consulate, the embassy, and members of the provincial and federal government in Canada on my parents’ behalf to no avail. This week, an assistant to a member of parliament finally responded to my repeated attempts to get help as a private citizen.
My parents have a flight scheduled home on the 21st, the fifth we’ve booked since their previous flights were all canceled, and one we hope they’ll be able to take unless the national lockdown in India continues beyond its scheduled April 14 conclusion. But, they’re also four hours away from the airport they need to get to in order to leave the country. Sometimes when my heart beats irregularly, I can’t figure out why, and then I remember it’s because I don’t feel whole right now. Instead, I feel like my heart is walking around outside my body, in another country, indefinitely lost, weakened by the environment, wantonly touching things and then touching its own face.
A few days ago, I called my 10-year-old niece and asked her to call her grandfather for a few minutes. “He’s bored over there,” I said. “And I think he’s a bit sad.”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “We’re all a bit sad.”
There are — literally — thousands of other families like mine trying to get their relatives home. In India alone, as of April 1, there were an estimated 15,000 Canadians and more than 2,000 Americans stranded and trying to return home. The US State Department estimates they have repatriated more than 50,000 Americans globally thus far since January. “At our Embassies and Consulates overseas, our consular teams are working around the clock to identify transportation options for US citizens seeking to return to the United States,” a State Department spokesperson told me in an email. “We must stress that these repatriation flights will not be available long term. If a US citizen wishes to return to the United States, it is important to take advantage of these flights now, or be prepared to remain where they are overseas for an indefinite period.” Neither Global Affairs Canada nor the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada responded to my repeated requests for comment.
In India alone, as of April 1, there were an estimated 15,000 Canadians and more than 2,000 Americans stranded and trying to return home.
Kirthan Aujlay, 35, based in Windsor, Ontario, is currently trying to bring her 69-year-old father home. Her father has stage 4 prostate cancer and Type 2 diabetes, and is stuck in a small village in Punjab called Isharwal, which has a population of around 1,200. She says he visits every year, but the village is an eight-hour drive from Delhi, the closest city where the Canadian government is chartering commercial flights to get citizens home. Worse, maybe, is the $2,900 CAD price tag that comes with that one-way ticket, which only drops citizens off in three cities in Canada. (Round-trip travel from Toronto to Delhi typically costs around $1,500. If you wanted to book a one-way ticket on April 30, you could get it for under $1,000 USD, assuming that it somehow doesn’t get canceled. Any way you cut it, nearly $3,000 is an exorbitant price.)
The Canadian government is keeping track of citizens stuck abroad with ROCA, the Registration of Canadians Abroad. Through ROCA, citizens should be receiving regular communication on what the government is doing to bring them home through repatriation flights. My parents are receiving some of these emails, including one that asked them to provide their passport numbers and personal information in a Google Form. (It included the unnerving warning that “the information will temporarily reside on servers outside of the purview of the Government of Canada, as such, we can not guarantee that it will not be accessed by Google or its affiliates.” ROCA initially told us we would receive communications from them once every 24 hours; the last email we got from them was on March 31. Some people are reporting having never received any information from ROCA despite being registered.
Twenty-three-year-old Jasmine Chauhan is trying to get her 76-year-old grandfather and 72-year-old grandmother home from Achharwal, Punjab. “[ROCA] sends these huge emails with repetitive information and you have to read through it for that one sentence that’s new,” she says. “I get it. It’s a really restricting lockdown and it’s difficult. But it’s been disappointing and absurd. This response has been really disorganized. It definitely lacks compassion and care.”
Like my mother, Chauhan’s grandfather takes hydroxychloroquine for his arthritis, which is seemingly no longer available in any pharmacies in India. He has three weeks of the drug left before he’ll run out. “Do we risk them getting the virus and coming home and getting really sick?” she says. “If we wait it out and if we’re not able to afford these flights, what if they do get sick in India? We don’t know what the right answer is.”
“If we wait it out and if we’re not able to afford these flights, what if they do get sick in India? We don’t know what the right answer is.”
Like Chauhan, Aujlay told her dad to come home early because of the pandemic, but once the world started taking it seriously, it became harder and harder to actually get him an earlier flight. Aujlay’s father had a flight scheduled for March 19, but that got canceled, along with his rescheduled flight on the 24th, due to India’s countrywide lockdown. “There are roadblocks everywhere we turn,” she says. “I don’t know how any of this is going to work.” (In fact, her father didn’t even find out his flight home was canceled until he had traveled the eight hours to Delhi’s airport and was notified there. He said a riot nearly broke out; he turned back around to travel back to the village and wait for a new flight.)
Aujlay’s real concern, though, is that despite having his Canadian doctor’s approval to visit India, her father’s health may decline the longer he is unable to return home for treatment. “My fear is he will come back and be too weak to start chemo and then the cancer’s just going to spread and take him much sooner than it would have,” Aujlay says. “My mom said when she spoke to him, she was like, ‘Now I can kind of hear the concern in his voice.’ He’s starting to get how serious it is.”
Cheyanne Lobo, 22 and based out of Toronto, is currently trying to get her father and his uncle back from Goa, India, where they’ve been since late February. Like a lot of children of boomers, in March she asked him to come home early once the virus had started to spread more aggressively. “At that time, he was not as concerned as we were down here. He doesn’t have access to as many news sources as we do. He didn’t understand how intense it was,” she says. “It’s really hard. I’ve never understood how limited I am when I’m this far away from someone, until this moment.”
Lobo’s father, Anthony, who’s 61, and his uncle, who’s 85, both have diabetes. And despite being registered with the Canadian government as citizens abroad, her relatives haven’t gotten consistent communication about repatriation flights. His uncle only has another week of his heart medication left, and it’s increasingly hard in India to find refills of certain drugs — plus there’s the added risk of going outside to get to the pharmacy. “There’s always the question of what if it gets worse? It’s hard. It’s just hard. I miss my dad so much,” Lobo says. “Our fridge just broke and it’s very stressful because none of us know what to do. If he was here, life would be better. I have no fucking clue how to fix the fridge.”
Since Lobo and I first spoke, her father, Anthony, and his uncle have now been scheduled on a government flight back to Canada from Mumbai. They’re currently at the airport waiting to take off, and hopefully, this flight won’t get canceled. “I swear, when [the travel representative] called, it just knocked you out,” Anthony tells me. “Just to hear the guy’s voice, because you were so desperate. You were isolated. It was nice to hear somebody say that they’re coming with the cavalry to come and save you.” And though the cost for him and his uncle to get home is steep, it was the best of very limited options for two retired men. “Three thousand dollars is insane. But honestly, it didn’t matter. You’re desperate. If you’re desperate, you’ll pay anything.”
“Every time we tried to find a new way for my dad to come home, we ended up with some new unexpected barrier.”
The Canadian government, for at least Aujlay, Lobo, and myself, has been uncommunicative and unhelpful. When contacted for comment by BuzzFeed News, neither Global Affairs Canada nor the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada responded. When I reached out to it as a private citizen, pleading for my parents’ return, it ignored my emails or sometimes sent me boilerplate in response, the same language that countless others have received. (When it comes to Global Affairs, it’s clear its staff are not entirely reading my emails or tweets; sometimes they reply as if I’m the one trying to get back to Canada, not realizing I’m talking about my parents.) It’s agony, and it feels endless. “Every time we tried to find a new way for my dad to come home, we ended up with some new unexpected barrier,” Aujlay says.
Since we first published this story, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada contacted us with a brief statement. “We continue to work with local authorities in India to coordinate transportation to help Canadians travel to New Delhi or Mumbai to catch their flight,” it said in part. “As is the case with the other flights that we have facilitated in other parts of the world, these are commercial flights, facilitated by the Government of Canada. The costs reflect the complexity of the situation and the commercial arrangement that has been made.” To date, the Canadian government has brought home 744 Canadians. There are still 26,405 Canadians registered with ROCA in India.
In response to a BuzzFeed News callout asking people to share their stories about trying to get family members home, we heard from many adult children trying to get their parents home. Every story feels familiar and devastating: dads without their insulin, a constant parade of canceled flights, mothers rationing their medication in order to make it last. Reading them feels like sinking into quicksand that I’m already upsettingly acquainted with. “There’s always the worry deep down,” wrote one woman whose family is also stuck in India, “that we will never see each other again.”
A running joke my mom started long before the pandemic kept me away from her is that she can’t die until I have children. I, predictably, hate this joke partially because I don’t plan on having kids, but largely because I don’t really care for her holding her mortality over my head as some bargaining chip. (And, I guess, if that’s the logic, doesn’t that mean I shouldn’t have children so she stays alive as long as possible? Or, should I start having them once I’m ready for her to die? No one has thought this through.) She says it more often now, as if it’ll comfort me. “I can’t die until I see your kid,” she says. This is an improvement, I suppose — she’s downgraded to kid from kids.
Death by a global pandemic while stuck in a small town on the other side of the world with limited Wi-Fi and barely enough medication? Get outta here.
Everyone’s parents have to die eventually. Logically, I know this. When my parents get sick, I think about what it would be like to get the news, and what it would be like to keep moving through the world without them. Who will listen to me list off all the things I ate for lunch that week? Who will I visit on Shivaratri?
The anxiety here is in the hopelessness, and not having any control over what happens to them. I know I never had it to begin with, but the coronavirus has merely put this fact into stark, discomfiting perspective.
When my mom’s cough started, I wailed: Is this how they die? Trapped in India, a place they always want to go back to but now seem to be stuck in forever, away from most of the family and without health insurance and nervous about so much as walking on the driveway? It’s not a scenario I ever played out in my head. This, even for me, seemed too dramatic to consider. Death by a global pandemic while stuck in a small town on the other side of the world with limited Wi-Fi and barely enough medication? Get outta here.
My friend Isaac has this saying: “Every day above ground.” When I first noticed he used it all the time, I thought, Am I supposed to cheer for every day that I don’t die? It seemed ridiculous to me, the mantra of a blind optimist. I’m not very good at optimism.
Now, I repeat it to myself a few times a day (on good days) or a few times an hour (on bad ones). When my dad called one evening at 11 p.m., my heart jumped — but it turns out he just wanted to ask what the weather was like in New York. In that moment I said it to myself: He’s got another day above ground, before politely reminding him he has a phone and can look up the weather himself instead of scaring the shit out of me.
I say it when my friends text, or when my husband and I get chippy with each other, stuck in our little apartment waiting for something good to happen: Everyone is above ground.
My parents text me good morning and good night, every day, no matter what. And when my mom answers my calls in the morning and quizzes me on my Hindi, as if it matters anymore, I say it again: She’s still above ground. (Maybe my Hindi teacher can tell me how to say that. Har din jameen ki upar?) Later, my niece calls me to show me her lunch, her long eyelashes, her nail polish. I never thought I would just be grateful for the continued existence of these few people, even so far away from me. But that gratitude is all I feel I have anymore. I say it to myself again and again and again, an incantation I never thought I would one day rely on in order to keep my body upright and my heart pumping: Every day, we’re all above ground. ●
This story has been updated to include a statement from a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.