By Jessica D’Souza and Katelyn Milligan

The Australian Indian community feels ‘shaken’ and ‘helpless’ in the wake of the growing coronavirus crisis unfolding in India, and while they support the current ban on flights have called the threat of jailing returnees “unAustralian”.

Speaking to Central News many expressed fear for family and friends living in India and said they felt powerless to do anything.

India has reported 392,488 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, just short of it’s previous world record of 401,993 daily infections. A stream of images from India show distressing scenes of overcrowded hospitals that are running out of oxygen supplies and scenes of mass cremations in car parks and public parks. 

“We are shaken, we are angry, we are upset, we are scared. And that is the feeling in the Indian community, whoever I meet, whomever I speak with,” said Shubha Kumar, president of the India Club. 

She added: “They’re worried about their family members.”

Shubha Kumar, President of the India Club. Source: India Club

Mrs Kumar moved to Australia 47 years ago and co-founded the India Club in 2004, a local not-for-profit organisation based in Sydney for Australians and those of Indian origin.

Her own brother recently tested positive for COVID-19 in India.

“Everyone we talk to from the Indian community or people in India, there is not one family which is not affected,” she said.

“Because we cannot even visit, you see the sickness and you really cannot do anything, you can’t even sit with the person who is sick.

“My husband’s family, his nephew just came down with COVID and that actually made us realise how critical the situation is. A friend came to visit me and the first thing she says is my father passed away from COVID just a few months back, and everybody in my family is going through COVID. So it is so scary.

[A friend’s brother] actually at least had good care, a ventilator and all that. And they couldn’t save his life. But he was one of the lucky ones, that at least he had on the air.

“Yesterday, they visited a friend, his brother, just about probably he would be 57, 58 years old, he died in India.

“He actually at least had good care, a ventilator and all that. And they couldn’t save his life. But he was one of the lucky ones, that at least he had on the air.”

India has reported 3,689 deaths in the past 24 hours with crematoriums reporting their equipment melting from overuse.

The Facebook group Indians in Sydney has been a vital source of information for the local community, with members sharing resources to help others organise oxygen tanks and essential items to be sent to family members impacted by the pandemic in India. Indian-Australians, one of the most devoutly religious communities in the country, are also gathering to pray for an end to the catastrophe, with the Facebook group notifying members of services by various religious groups.

Apoorva Shetty, a 32-year-old IT programmer formerly from Strathfield in Sydney, was a passenger on one of the last flights from Australia to India before the Australian Government’s travel ban between the two nations came in on Tuesday.

Returning to Mumbai three weeks ago after working in Sydney for the last two years, she said she can already see the stark difference between the two nations’ COVID-19 management.

“In Sydney, people are more careful about the situation, and they are taking preventative measures of wearing the mask and, you know, not overcrowding a place”, she said. “Over here, it’s like not much is being observed. Because the government has now enforced lockdown and everything, that’s the reason people are putting the masks on.”

Even before the second wave, there were still more than 10,000 active COVID-19 cases every week in India.

But Ms Shetty said the Maharashtra State Government, that governs Mumbai, had still eased restrictions and “people were back to usual and going out… and partying and [acting as if] everything was fine”. 

Currently in lockdown with her parents, Ms Shetty said the Indian Government’s international travel regulations were less strenuous than the Australian Government’s processes.

All international arrivals have been diverted to the Indian capital, New Delhi, and must provide an RT-PCR (coronavirus swab) test result to authorities no more than 72 hours old.

However, the introduction of Air Suvidha, an online self-declaration form for arrivals in New Delhi, has allowed travellers to apply for exemption from institutional quarantine if they return a negative test result. Even if these passengers go on to travel interstate, they are only asked to self-isolate at home. 

If we’ll not get better, proper medical attention at the same time, then we might lose our lives there.

“It will just ask you to self-isolate yourself from your family, after you reach your destination, that’s it”, she said, adding that she had not been contacted by state or federal authorities after her arrival in Mumbai.

Ms Shetty’s fears have heightened since arriving in Mumbai. The fairly slim possibility of testing positive for COVID-19 in Sydney is now more likely, and she worries she or her family could catch the virus at any time.

“If we’ll not get better, proper medical attention at the same time, then we might lose our lives there,” she said.

The Indian Government’s voluntary vaccination program commenced in January, with essential workers and Indians over the age of 45 comprising the 1.8 per cent of the vaccinated population. Indians between ages of 18 to 45 will be vaccinated from May 1, subject to vaccine availability.

Mumbai hospital test centre

A sign outside SevenHills Hospital in Mumbai, announcing the temporary closure of their COVID testing centre. Source: Supplied


“It is a very, very dire situation and it’s something we are finding hard to comprehend. We are all so helpless,” said Mrs Kumar.

Mrs Kumar acknowledged the Australian Government had to take a strict stance in reducing flights from India to protect the Australian population and maintain lenient regulations that allow people to socialise, but disagrees with the introduction of penalties including five years jail for returning during the crisis. 

“There is so much infection going on there,” she said. “And at least the government here has taken steps and have got a very good handle. And we actually admire the Australian government for that.”

But, she said she feels for those who “got caught in that mesh of safety,” no longer being able to leave India and come back to Australia, and was disappointed with the introduction of harsh penalties.

It’s just not making sense at all, to us where we stand.

She suggested authorities establish separate quarantine facilities for Indian arrivals. “This is just unbelievable and it is very un-Australian,” she said. “It’s very hard to say what is right or what is wrong.”

She added that whilst there is a downside to the Australian Government’s hard approach, “we appreciate that for now, this is better. At least the people in this country are safe, they stay safe.” 

Like many Indians living in Australia she was critical of the Indian government’s response.

“How this happened is beyond comprehension,” she said. “They were doing okay, like the numbers were dropping down … it turned around and all you can think of is the government did not put lockdown.

“They should have done virtual elections rather than having rallies of so many thousands of people and without masks. It’s just not making sense at all, to us where we stand.”

Main image shows a street in Mumbai with people queuing for vaccines. Photo: Supplied

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