Joti Kaur Rekhi: Sikh Americans Send Aid As Family In India Face The COVID-19 Crisis

While bodies upon bodies arrive at mass cremation sites, Sikh Americans grieve the loss of relatives in India without a goodbye, a final hug, or proper funeral rites.

Joti Kaur Rekhi
May 4, 2021 | 5 min. read

As flights from the United States providing oxygen equipment and medical supplies arrived in India, during its devastating COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of American Sikhs and Punjabis desperately hope the aid reaches their relatives since they, themselves, cannot.

The Department of State issued a Level 4 travel advisory for India on April 28, urging U.S. citizens not to go to India and advising those already there to use commercial transportation options while they are still available. This was followed by a  travel restriction by President Joe Biden on April 30, which will take effect May 4, preventing non-citizens from entering the U.S. from India. Exceptions are made for permanent residents and relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, among others.

While bodies upon bodies arrive at mass cremation sites, Sikh Americans grieve the loss of relatives in India without a goodbye, a final hug, or proper funeral rites.

Harminder Kaur Bagga is one such mourner. 

Bagga, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, lost two of her brothers living in India over the course of a month and a half. One of her brothers was  84-year-old Harbans Singh Chawla, a well-known author who received wide recognition and awards for his work on Sikh history and children’s fiction books. He passed away from COVID-19 in his home in Delhi on April 28.

“He was unconscious when he came home from the hospital. He didn’t open his eyes at all. So, my feeling is that he left peacefully. He didn’t have any worries or anything in his mind,” Bagga said.

Bagga has 10 siblings living throughout the U.S., Canada, and India. Although they feel very separated as travel is not safe, she said they’ve all been keeping in close touch as they grieve the loss of their brother. 

According to the State Department, 14 direct flights to some major U.S. cities from India are still available every day, while Canada suspended flights from India on Apr. 22 for 30 days.

“Now we’re sitting so far away from one another. Being with one another, sometimes helps with the pain and sadness. We can’t do anything from here,” Bagga said. “I’m just so grateful for the support that I’m getting from my family here with me.”

His sister reflected on how much joy it would bring her brother knowing reading his books would bring children and their parents together. She said she finds comfort in knowing his legacy will live on through the words he has written.

“As people continue to read his books, they’ll continue to remember him. His name will live on,” Bagga said.

She draws strength from the words of Guru Amar Das Ji from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji: Jagat jalanda rakh le apni kirpa dhar.

The prayer calls on God to bless the world as it is engulfed in flames. Flames like the ones around hundreds of pyres lining makeshift cremation sites. Often, multiple COVID-19 victims’ bodies are placed under the same woodpiles.

According to Bagga’s son Aman Singh Bagga only four family members were able to go to Chawla’s funeral - a rarity. Many bodies are brought in by volunteers or left for dead as workers struggle to keep up with the staggering number of casualties.

“Normally, there would have been more than 500 people at his funeral because all of the people from universities and institutions he’s worked for. Only four people were allowed to be with him for the funeral. You can’t even do a proper funeral there right now,” Bagga said. “Even still, I don’t know how they managed it because everything is so backed up.”

According to the World Health Organization, close to 400,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on May 4. Confirmed cases exceeded the devastating threshold of 20 million as of the same date. India is second only to the 32 million confirmed cases reported in the U.S.  

Like millions of Sikhs who call America home, the Bagga family left India for a better life; and they created one in the U.S.

All of them are fully vaccinated. They have adapted to the new normal of grocery deliveries, working from home, and virtual learning. Now, with the CDC estimating close to 250 million COVID-19 shots being given to people in the U.S., the Bagga’s are preparing to go back to what life was like before the pandemic. Aman said it is hard to watch what their lives could have been like if his parents stayed in India.

“Here in my parents’ generation, everyone is vaccinated now. Everyone has PPE. We have the physical space to distance ourselves. We have all these systems in place to order groceries. All these things can come right to your door,” Aman said. “In India all that is much harder. In Delhi, you can’t socially distance. If you’re in a market, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder. That’s the part I feel bad about. They just don’t have the resources and environment [that we do].”

Several other members in Chawla’s household became infected with COVID-19 and have recovered for the most part. However, Aman said his other cousins in India are infected, as are family members on his father’s side.

It is safe to say every Sikh American knows someone in India who currently has, has recovered from, or has died from, COVID-19. Death announcements and desperate pleas for oxygen and plasma flood social media and WhatsApp. 

Meanwhile, although event capacity for gatherings was recently reduced to accommodate for social distancing, millions gathered in Haridwar to celebrate Kumbh Mela this month in India. Thousands more, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rallies, ahead of the elections, unmasked and gathered closely together. 

Bagga hopes that the incoming U.S. aid is used to help sick Indians and is not corrupted by the ruling BJP.

Oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and generation units are among the $100 million dollars in support the U.S. has pledged to India. The U.S. will be sending 15 million N95 masks, testing kits, pulse oximeters, its own AstraZeneca manufacturing supplies, and 20,000 courses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir. The Center for Disease Control will help with prevention, infection control, vaccine rollout, and much more.

As of press time, four flights have arrived in India, carrying much of the promised aid. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), supplies are being given directly to the Indian Red Cross. More shipments are planned. 

“I think that Modi, his ministers and all of the institutions that he controls are going to find a way to profit off of it. That’s the type of government it is,” said Aman Bagga. “But I do appreciate that the U.S. is trying.”

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Joti Kaur recently obtained her MSc in International Public Policy from UCL in London. Her research focused on the disappearances and extrajudicial executions that occurred in Punjab following the Sikh Genocide of 1984. Prior to returning to school, she worked as a local television reporter for five years. Advocating for others has always been at the core of her work. She remains a voice for the voiceless. You can find Joti on Twitter at @ThisIsJoti.


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