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Looking Back at 2020 in America: Indian-Americans Face the Challenges of a Year like No Other


What began as a few infections in another part of the world coalesced into a worldwide pandemic, with America as its epicenter.

Looking Back at 2020 in America: Indian-Americans Face the Challenges of a Year like No Other
Every New Year, as the last hours of the waning year tick away, there are always some minuses and some pluses, some losses and some gains. This year, however, has been like no other year, across the world and especially in the US and India. It has been an unending nightmare for so many.
2020 may have begun with great hopes but the unfurling of a new word, a new threat – the nouvelle coronavirus – transformed the new-born year into a Titanic of mammoth proportions. What began as a few infections in another part of the world coalesced into a worldwide pandemic, with America as its epicenter. Covid-19 affected all 50 US states. The figures are staggering – as of today, there have been 19, 841,710 cases in America – with over 338,290 fatalities. The hospitals in many states are full to capacity.
Thousands of Americans have died including many Indian-Americans. One of the first deaths was of the beloved Indian-American celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz. Since then many Indian-American families have lost loved ones to whom they could not even say a final goodbye. Funeral services have been restricted to just a few close members and memorial services held via Zoom calls.
Pundit Hemant Ramrakhyani, the head priest at the Satya Narayan Mandir in Elmhurst, Queens, has been conducting zoom prayer meetings and last rites for members of the community. In the early days of the pandemic, he remembers a heartbroken young man who was not being allowed to attend his father’s cremation
After the priest intervened with the funeral home, the man was allowed to be physically present for his father’s last rites as the pundit chanted the prayers via a video call. The bereaved son got some closure but he was not allowed to even press the button to ignite the funeral pyre, due to COVID restrictions. Such are the stark realities of the pandemic which has been a time of grieving for Indian-American community with losses on both continents.
Indian-Americans are heavily in the medical profession so many physicians and health workers have had to put their lives on the line while serving others. Dr. Rahul Sharma, professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Nirav Shah, director, Maine Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Monica Bharel, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health are all on the frontline.
Mount Sinai Hospital which has several branches in Manhattan and Queens, dealt with hundreds of  coronavirus cases, and some of the doctors batting this were  Dr Umesh Gidwani, Chief of Cardiac Critical Care and Dr. Roopa Kohli-Seth, the Director of Critical Care at Mount Sinai, who leads all the ICUs.
In the early days of the pandemic,  New York became the epicenter, with a shortage of medical supplies and scores of large spaces doing double duty as hospitals to deal with the massive cases.  A portion of Central Park, the massive Jacob Javits Center and the Billie Jean King Tennis Center were transformed into makeshift hospitals and the USNS Comfort, a huge naval ship became  a virtual floating 1000 bed hospital. New York flattened the curve but since then COVID-19 has affected every state.
The Indian community was also hard-hit when businesses shut down as so many are in the hotel-motel industry, in restaurants and in small enterprises like 711 and other businesses. All these took a severe beating and many restaurants closed down permanently. The city has hundreds of Indian restaurants and all have been caught up in the whirlpool of the coronavirus. Many businesses have shown spunk and created innovative solutions. The economic recovery will be a long and ardorous one.
From the early days of the shutdown, restaurants got into delivery service so they would not have to shut down and fire their workers who are mostly living hand to mouth. Home deliveries have become a life-saver for both the restaurants and the customers.
It’s a painful time as restaurateurs wait for help from the federal government and try to find new ways of helping their workers and keeping their business afloat. Indoor dining is shutdown in many states and outdoor dining, while successful in the summer months, is back on hold due to the cold of winter. Another solution has been to turn the situation around by helping those less fortunate.  Restaurateurs have sought donations and city alliances to cook meals for food pantries for the needy. Chef Chintan Pandey and owner Roni Mazumdar joined the Food Council of City Harvest, an organization which helps to feed nearly 1.2 million New Yorkers who are facing food security.
Indian-Americans played a strong role in promoting democracy when everything looked bleak, and many also supported the black community in the peaceful protests after the brutal police killing of George Floyd. Indians voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats and more than 70 candidates ran for election up and down the ticket. Indian-Americans as part of the larger Asian-American community were part of the overwhelming win for Joe Biden in which the African-American community played a decisive part.
November 7 was an unbelievable day in America which ended the Trump era in America and voted in Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president, albeit with a lot of Trumpian drama.  Indian-Americans also found their place in the sun with the selection of Kamala Harris to the second-highest office in the land and women everywhere have been delighted that the daughter of immigrants, becomes the first female vice-president and also the first Indian and black woman to hold this second-highest position in America.
Several other Indian-Americans have been selected to the Biden Administration including Neera Tanden and Rohini Kosoglu. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is the new surgeon general, is part of the Coronavirus Taskforce which includes Dr. Celine Gounder and Dr. Atul Gawande.
On January 5, Indian-Americans still have a role to play in the upcoming Georgia senate runoffs. They are 35 percent of the 250,000 AAPI voters who represent 5.7 percent of the state electorate in Georgia, and the hope is that they will help to flip the Senate majority from red to blue, which is crucial for Biden’s agenda and cabinet.
The best news of the year and the saving grace after thousands of infections and deaths during the pandemic are the new vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna which are now being injected into millions of arms. President-elect Joe Biden has already taken the COVID-19 vaccine in public to motivate others to do the same, and VP-elect Kamala Harris is set to take the vaccine tomorrow.
It has been a year of grief and loss and it is predicted that things will get worse before they get better.  Right now Americans stand on the brink of hope, having crossed the chasm of death and despair. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has held many Coronavirus Town Halls on CNN, and also reached out to educate young people about Covid-19 through Sesame Street, conveyed the hopes and fears of the New Year.
“We are so close now to seeing the end of this pandemic,” he said. “Seeing the vaccines roll out is a true light at the end of the tunnel but we can't forget that we do have some of our darkest days ahead still, to know that on average more than two people will die every minute here in the United States with COVID.”  As he cautions, “The vaccines won't necessarily be a silver bullet. They may not rescue us from ourselves. We need to act ourselves - and we're only going to end this if we remember to wear a mask, be kind and get vaccinated.”
(Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read her columns here.)
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