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As Virus Engulfs India, Diaspora Watches with Despair

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LOS ANGELES: Bad news, knowing no time zones, arrives in a jarring burst of messages, calls and posts informing millions of members of India’s worldwide diaspora that yet another loved one has been sickened or lost to the coronavirus.

Sometimes it comes in a barrage of WhatsApp messages first thing in the morning, and sometimes it lands in the middle of the night, as it did for Mohini Gadr’s father. A 3 a.m. call at his San Francisco Bay Area home let him know that his octogenarian mother who had tested positive in Mumbai was too weak to say her morning prayers, setting off a mad scramble to find her the hospital bed where she remained for days.

In the U.S., where half of the adult population has gotten at least one COVID-19 shot, the talk has been of reopening, moving forward and healing. But for Indian Americans, the daily crush of dark news from desh, the homeland, is a stark reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Were seeing life slowly start to get back to normal in small ways, and youre feeling like a bit of hope like with spring. You know that things are improving, its been a year, Gadr, 27, said. And meanwhile theres this tinderbox thats been ignited in India.

The more than 4.2 million people like Gadr who make up the Indian diaspora in the U.S., according to census estimates, have watched in horror as the latest coronavirus surge burns through India, killing thousands of people a day and catapulting the death toll to more than 200,000 the fourth-highest in the world.

In a culture that generally makes no distinctions between cousin and sibling, biological aunt or close friend, family is family. Many Indian Americans are wracked with guilt over emerging from more than a year of isolation as relatives overseas struggle to find vaccines, hospital beds and, fatefully, their breath.

Like India itself, the diaspora is striated by religion, caste, class, mother tongue and other factors that continue to divide. But now many of its members are united in frustration and helplessness with little recourse. The State Department has issued a do not travel advisory for India, citing COVID-19. That leaves families few options except to try to arrange resources from afar and persuade relatives to keep safe.

In the U.K. home to about 1.4 million Indians the government has added India to its red list of countries, banning arrivals for anyone from India except for U.K. citizens and residents. That adds to a sense of isolation and helplessness for many who feel cut off from loved ones.

Apart from raising funds, being generous with donations and going to offer prayers, theres not much else we can do at the moment, said Yogesh Patel, a spokesperson at one of the U.K.s largest Hindu temples. We cant go and console family and friends, everything is happening online.

Compounding the frustration is the struggle by many in the diaspora to convince family and friends in India to abide by basic social distancing and masking protocols.

The problem is twofold and cultural: A certain generational hierarchy means elders are not inclined to heed the advice of their children, grandchildren or outsiders. And misinformation spreads widely through the same social channels that are vital to coordinating help and bridging the gap across oceans.

My dad, he was all over the place, and I told him: Youve got to stay at home, youve got to wear masks, but, you know, they dont listen, said Ankur Chandra, 38, a New York-based consultant whose father is now recovering from COVID-19, alone in an apartment in Indias national capital region of Gurugram.

Shivani Nath, a Manhattan-based interior designer for hotels who was born and raised in New Delhi, offended relatives when she expressed horror instead of congratulations at pictures of a complete five-day, traditional Indian Hindu wedding in the family no masks in sight.

My cousin was like, You Americans are so arrogant and look at your own country and you have over 500,000 people who have died. And she actually told me shes like, Indians have herd immunity. We are born with herd immunity, Nath recounted.

Her cousin later apologized, after several wedding attendees were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Vijaya Subrahmanyam, 58, typically travels to India every six months to see her family, including her older sister and 91-year-old mother in Hyderabad, in the southern state of Telangana. Because of the pandemic, she hasnt been back in almost two years, and her summer plans to visit were scrapped at her own mothers advisement.

The same week that the Atlanta-based college professor received her second dose of the vaccine, her mother and sister both tested positive for COVID-19. Her mother had not left her home, but her sister took a two-minute diversion to the mall to purchase a handbag after picking up some medicine, and that’s where Subrahmanyam suspects she got infected.

Initially, we were like, Whats wrong with you? she said. But Subrahmanyam realized her sister probably felt worse about it than anyone else and recognized that she was the one still in India, tasked with taking care of their mother.

Some of those who feel similarly helpless are channeling their energies into mutual aid projects.

Anand Chaturvedi, 23, is from Mumbai but now works in New York. Coming from a tech background, he volunteered to help the same websites he himself has used, including an open-source site that helps search for virus-related resources.

In Seattle, Sanjay Jejurikar, 58, is leveraging his connections and using his familiarity with India to connect people to assistance, everyone from a 75-year-old mentor to young employees of his India-based education technology startup.

In India, things are a little bit chaotic, right? said Jejurikar, whose mother died of COVID-19 in July in India. I mean, on one hand, theyre very bureaucratic and rule-based, and all that stuff, which is good. But on the other hand, quite a few people are left on their own devices, like they dont have any support.

After losing her grandmother to COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, 23-year-old Farheen Ali, a grad student from Texas, moved back to Hyderabad in August to help her parents.

Having experienced a pandemic peak and a Ramadan in each country, Ali thinks one of the biggest differences is the confidence she had that it wont get that bad or the system wont break as bad in the U.S. She also believes she would have been vaccinated by this point if she had stayed in Texas.

While she doesn’t necessarily regret coming to India, the embers of hope are dying out: I dont think theres any trust in the government or the public that theyre going to try to get this down because I still know people that dont want to take the vaccine because of stupid WhatsApp messages or dont believe that corona is still a thing, even though people are dying at this rate.

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Associated Press Writer Sylvia Hui in London contributed to this report.

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Surge Tests, Vaccine Measures as B1.617.2 Covid-19 Variant Spreads Rapidly in Parts of UK

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The case numbers related to the B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, have more than doubled within a week in the UK, resulting in further surge testing and enhanced vaccine measures to be deployed in parts of the country where the strain is beginning to spread increasingly rapidly. Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday that its latest analysis shows the number of cases of the highly transmissible variant first detected in Maharashtra has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week.

Most cases are in the northwest of England, with some in London, and additional measures are being put in place to “rapidly break chains of transmission”. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the health authorities are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary, indicating that the roadmap to lifting all lockdown measures from June 21 may have to be reassessed.

This data demonstrates why our swift and decisive measures are in place. Everyone has a part to play in controlling this variant, from participating in surge testing, to following the rules, to getting the jab, said Hancock. We are committed to working with local areas and deploying our world-leading genomic sequencing to get this variant under control. We are supporting areas where the cases of this variant are rising, he said.

The minister said it is imperative that people who live in one of the 15 areas currently covered by surge testing processes get a free PCR test and everyone who’s eligible needs to come forward and get their vaccine. PHE said that while there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on the severity of disease or that it evades vaccines, the “speed of growth is concerning”.

UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the authorities are looking at how to best utilise the vaccine roll-out to protect the most vulnerable in the context of the current epidemiology, including the possibility of bringing forward the second doses for the most vulnerable in some of the most affected areas. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, one of the hotspots of the variant, has also called for a speeding up in the age eligibility criteria for vaccines in the affected areas. The National Health Service (NHS) is now offering a jab to all over the age of 38.

Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action, said Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE. Testing and isolating when required not only limits spread, it helps us to better understand how the variant behaves in the community which is vital to taking effective and proportionate action moving forward “The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same. Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside, keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside, she said.

The variant was confirmed as a “Variant of Concern” by PHE on May 7 after a rise in cases and evidence of spread in some areas. Since then across the northwest of England, significant work is underway with local councils and partners. In Bolton, mobile testing units have been deployed and door to door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents. A vaccine bus has been established in the heart of the community to increase vaccine uptake as part of a wider drive.

PCR testing, whole genome sequencing and enhanced contact tracing are being used throughout London to target the many small dispersed clusters. All positive tests in London with a high enough viral load are also being prioritised for genomic sequencing to check for variants, and surge testing can begin immediately if it is needed. Taking this community-led approach has already proved effective in reducing transmission of variants in London to date, PHE said.

To help identify variant cases, surge testing is being deployed in 15 areas across England to suppress transmission, with more than 800,000 additional PCR test kits distributed. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), over 4,400 cases and over 14,000 close contacts have been traced and instructed to self-isolate.

Over 200 existing test sites and 130 schools have distributed test kits, with Mobile Testing Units deployed to provide PCR testing for people without symptoms. The public is also being urged to continue to take up the offer of two free rapid tests a week, to help identify asymptomatic cases. Anyone who does test positive in this way should take a follow-up PCR test, which can be sent for genome sequencing to help catch new variant cases.

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National Platform to Determine Impact of Covid-19 Vaccines to Be Established Soon

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A national tracking platform will be established soon to determine the impact of the jabs against COVID-19 and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation, official sources said. The recommendation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) to establish such a platform has been accepted by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 and the Union Health Ministry, they said.

“The COVID-19 Working Group which is part of NTAGI has strongly recommended to urgently establish a national vaccine tracking platform to determine the impact of the COVID vaccine(s) and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation,” said Dr N K Arora, the INCLEN Trust chairperson who heads the COVID-19 Working Group. The vaccine tracker will be particularly important to monitor the impact of increasing the dosing schedule of Covishield, he said, as the government on Thursday accepted the working group’s recommendation to extend the gap between the two doses of the Covishield vaccine from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks.

The current data harmonisation work of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and other agencies can be leveraged to set up this facility for review of ground realities on real-time basis, the NTAGI has recommended. The government panel has also recommended that pregnant women may be offered the choice to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines and that lactating women can be inoculated any time after delivery.

The NTAGI has also stated that those having laboratory test proven SARS-CoV-2 illness should defer COVID-19 vaccination for six months after recovery, the sources said. According to the health ministry’s current protocol, vaccine is to be taken four to eight weeks after recovery from COVID-19 infection and pregnant and lactating women are not to be administered the shots.

The NTAGI recommended that all pregnant women visiting for antenatal care (ANC) may be informed about risks and benefits associated with Covishield and Covaxin. Based on the information provided, a pregnant woman may be offered the choice to take any of the vaccines. An educational tool comprising information on risk of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, benefits associated with the vaccination and rare complications associated with vaccines like thrombosis and thrombocytopenia (with Covishield) may be developed.

In case of individuals who have received the first dose and before completion of the dosing schedule if they test positive for COVID-19, they should wait for 4-8 weeks after clinical recovery from the illness. Also, COVID-19 patients who have been given anti-SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma may defer vaccination for three months from the day of discharge from hospital, the recommendations stated.

Individuals having any other serious illness requiring hospitalisation or ICU care should also wait for 4-8 weeks before getting the vaccine, it added.

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Delhi Police Quiz Youth Congress President Srinivas BV Over Covid Assistance to Public

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Indian Youth Congress (IYC) president Srinivas BV on Friday said the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch questioned him about the assistance being provided by him to people during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Police called me this morning and came to my office around 11.45 am. They questioned that how you are doing it,” he said.

However, the Delhi Police said the questioning has been done following a Delhi High Court order. The high court has directed the city police to conduct inquiry into politicians involved in distribution of COVID-19 medicines and other items, and take steps for lodging of FIR in case of offence, a senior police officer said.

In compliance with the directions of the high court, inquiry is being conducted into several people, the officer said. On May 4, the Delhi High Court had asked the police to examine the instances of politicians allegedly procuring and distributing Remdesivir, used in treatment of COVID-19 patients, in the national capital and take steps for lodging of FIR in case of offence.

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