On Monday night, my father messaged our family WhatsApp channel. ‘Illias Kaka has died from COVID,’ he told us. Though it shames me to admit it, I didn’t automatically click to who he was talking about. It took a few messages before I realised he was talking about his cousin, referring to him as ‘Kaka’ for our benefit, the Hindi term for ‘paternal younger uncle’ as we always do for people generationally older than us.
I realised that I did have a memory of Illias, from when we visited India when I was a teenager. It’s a faded memory now, and I struggle to remember the details of their home in the village in Gujarat, where my paternal family is from. But I have glimpses of the blue walls of a house, a smiling man with children who were sweet and intrigued by their foreign relatives, arriving from all the way in Australia.
‘What will happen now?’ I asked my dad. ‘Who will take care of his family?’
Dad replied that he didn’t know - Illias’ family also have COVID, and the whole situation is one of confusion and chaos.
It feels bizarre to think that while our lives here in Australia, especially in Canberra where I live, are continuing on largely as normal, our relatives are facing one of the darkest crises they’ve ever experienced
For the days following this conversation, I’ve been scouring the news for reports of the situation unfolding in India, where hundreds of thousands of people are infected with COVID, and hospitals and other services are struggling to cope with the demand for emergency medical attention.
It feels bizarre to think that while our lives here in Australia, especially in Canberra where I live, are continuing on largely as normal, our relatives are facing one of the darkest crises they’ve ever experienced, helpless to the onslaught of this disease which has exposed more cracks in the public health system than can seemingly be fixed.
I’ve written before about the immense sense of guilt I carry as a migrant, living in Australia. I have always been aware, from as early as I can remember, that my circumstances in life immeasurably improved when we moved to Australia, and that I have the envy of my cousins and relatives in India and in Fiji (where I was born), as a result of this good fortune.
This guilt is usually just a background feature of my life, not something I dwell on constantly, but definitely a sensation that rears its head at key moments. Like when my uncle in Fiji needed emergency heart surgery, and there was no one in the country who could operate on him. Or when we visited our extended family in India and I realised that one family, with five children, all slept in a room the size of my own bedroom at home.
It’s a constant reminder of our immense privilege, and also of the global system of inequality that means that life in the countries that I am from, is vastly less secure and enabling than life in this country, where I have grown up.
What would normally be a time of community building, sharing and reflection, has been overtake by fear, isolation and dread
But even as I have learned to live with this guilt, it has never hit me as hard as it has this past week as the situation in India has worsened. People are buying oxygen cylinders on the black market. They’re struggling to find capacity in the cemeteries and cremation grounds to deal with the influx of dead bodies. Where there was struggle and poverty before, now there is the additional black cloud of disease and death, shrouding millions of people in a nightmare that seems unending.
It feels even worse, watching all of this unfold from afar, because it is also the month of Ramadan. My family is Muslim, and what would normally be a time of community building, sharing and reflection, has been overtaken by fear, isolation and dread.
I know that if I am feeling this distressed, when my immediate and close family is safely in Australia or New Zealand, within the bubble of western privilege, Australian Indians who have close family in India, including those trying to get home, are in an incredibly difficult situation.
For many Australians, as things gradually return to normal in our major cities and across our country, the Covid crisis might feel like it’s gradually fading away. But as the global situation continues to unfold, and countries like India slip into a disastrous second wave, many migrant Australians are stuck in a nightmare that is beyond their control, with oceans lying between us and loved ones, unable to do anything but watch it unfold.
Zoya Patel is an Australian writer and editor. She is the author of No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging.