Pandemic in Little India: Anxiety, uncertainty as Indian Americans cope with coronavirus

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, stores like Walmart had problems keeping up with the high demand for paper goods leading to empty shelves on March 14, 2020 in Uniondale, New York. (Getty Images)

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that life has changed virtually overnight, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that’s brought the world to a standstill. Most people have been staying home, a self-imposed quarantine or exile, if you will, as they try to cope with canceled events, closed schools, shuttered offices, and fearful friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings of 50 people or more take place for at least eight weeks. 

New Jersey and San Francisco have imposed a curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., advising residents to stay home. Six counties in California could also face a potential lockdown.

Bars, restaurants and theaters are also closing their operations. Just like everyone here, Indian Americans are also trying to cope up with the sudden change in how we lead our lives and grapple with mass closings, curfews and social distancing. With spring break season, travel plans are being cancelled and events are being rescheduled.

While some say they are looking forward to slowing down, spending more time with their families, there are some who are anxious of the ambiguity, the paranoia and the fear of the unknown.

The New Normal

Working from home, remotely attending classes in schools and colleges, remotely working out, and always looking out for anyone coughing or sneezing, is the new normal these days. And not be mention, overworked housewives and mothers trying ways to entertain their kids, and trying to decipher the remote learning system implemented by schools in various states. Throw in spring break, and it’s chaos all over, and some disappointment as well.

“2020 was the year I had decided to get organized,” says Portland, Oregon-based Anika Kale. Vacations were booked, kids’ activities were planned for spring and summer, and even a summer graduation party for her eldest is on the cards. But now all the mother of two is doing is cancelling or postponing vacations and activities. The uncertainty of it all is frustrating,” she says. “One would hope that things will get normalized, but the way it’s escalating, it’s hard to predict anything.”

Pandemic in Little India: Anxiety, uncertainty as Indian Americans cope with coronavirus

A subway rider wears a mask in New York, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (The New York Times)

Many are also dealing with disappointment. A South Brunswick, New Jersey teenager, who did not want to be identified, had spent a year with her high school band to go to a music festival in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her school band auditioned for it, and they were among a handful of schools, and the only one from the East Coast, to be selected. But just like every other event, the festival was cancelled. In addition, their school district also closed down schools and implemented remote learning. “These were supposed to be the best days of our lives,” the teen said, as she talked with friends online. Everyone was echoing her feeling. “Now we can’t even go to school or hang out,” she said.

In some cases, entire communities, neighborhoods or towns are being affected or quarantined. One such town is Teaneck, New Jersey. On March 14, Teaneck was declared “ground zero” as the township dealt with the most coronavirus cases in Bergen County. According to news reports, some 60 percent of Bergen County's 31 confirmed virus infections are in the township, which has a population of more than 41,000. According to Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, it’s utmost important to follow orders of the CDC and keep calm. He urged all residents to self-quarantine and only leave their residences for food and medicine Hameeduddin said a townwide quarantine is the best way to stop the virus from spreading.

It’s not just a lifestyle change that people have to grapple with, it’s also the fear of running out of supplies. The uncertainity has people flocking to stores, and making a run for toilet paper, which has fueled many memes and jokes. People are also making a beeline for frozen food products, toiletries not to mention soaps and hand sanitizers. And the checkout lines are another story.

“It took me 20 minutes to shop, and almost double that time to check out from an Indian store,” Neeta Reddy, of Fremont, California, said. “It’s insane how people are shopping ,as if it’s an apocalypse,” she said. Satwant Singh, manager at an Indian grocery store in New Jersey told this correspondent that they are regularly refilling shelves and customers should not panic.” He advised people to stay calm and enjoy the downtime.

Pandemic in Little India: Anxiety, uncertainty as Indian Americans cope with coronavirus

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, stores like Whole Foods and Walmart had problems keeping up with the high demand for paper goods and  groceries, leading to empty shelves. 

Indian American event planners and promoters are also dealing with show cancelations and reimbursing customers. Several call this “an extraordinary situation.” Events such as Bollywood singer Neha Kakkar’s U.S. tour, plays, and shows by Bollywood actors Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan have been cancelled. Several film festivals scheduled for March, April and May have been postponed or rescheduled.

Travel Plans in Limbo

With travel restrictions from India and Europe, travel plans had to be cancelled or changed. Ila Sarkar, a statistician form Dallas, Texas was flying to India to visit her parents on March 11, the day the Government of India issued a travel advisory. Sarkar told this correspondent that there was so much misinformation and uncertainty that she decided to cancel her trip. “I didn’t want to get to India and get quarantined or not be able to come back.”

Mrunal Limaye of Poughkeepsie, New York, was facing the same dilemma as Sarkar. She said she has not postponed her ticket, and “hoping for the best.”

But it’s not just India plans that are affected: Disney trips, spring break holidays, Europe trips, cruises — everything is in limbo. The New York Times reports that nations across the world have imposed travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Anitha Ram of Old Bridge, New Jersey had planned a surprise trip for her daughter’s 16th birthday to Paris during spring break. “All bookings were made,” she said, adding that now all she’s doing is waiting for someone from customer service to attend to her for cancelations. “I also need to plan something for my daughter within what’s possible given the situation,” she said. The State Department has issued a global Level 3 health advisory telling U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel” to all countries because of the global effects of the coronavirus. A Level 4 advisory, which has not yet been issued, would mean “do not travel.” On March 14, President Trump extended the shut down on most travel from Europe to the United States to include the United Kingdom and Ireland, effective March 16.

Empty Campuses

For the safety and well-being of the students, several U.S. universities have shut campus operations and have moved classes online. While most students have gone home, international students like Niraj Pradhan and Neha Verma of University of Connecticut are in a fix. With campuses closed and travel to India suspended, they can neither return to campus nor go back home. They are in their apartment in Hartford, “closely watching the situation.” Community organizations like Telugu Association of North America (TANA) and Seva International are helping international students from India.

There are several students who are facing several difficulties in different states finding a place to stay as the universities have vacated the hostels and housing facilities for the students as classes were moved online.

The Consulate General of India in New York has requested friends of the students to host them till such time the threat lasts.

The Embassy of India in Washington, D.C., has established a helpline for international students, advising them to avoid domestic and international travel as well as check with their respective universities on how to avail the university’s health services, student health insurance, international student services, and any other essential service(s) that may be impacted, and if they can petition to continue staying in on-campus housing. According to the embassy estimates, there are over 200,000 international students in the U.S.

In Sickness and in Health

The wedding industry is another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Wedding planners say that in the wake of the pandemic, couples are getting creative with their wedding preparations and re-examining what they can do to protect their guests. “Already a time of intense jitters, wedding planning has only become more jittery thanks to the pandemic,” Komal Patel of Navya Wedding told Fortune magazine. Although there’s been no cancelation yet, Patel said her clients who have weddings scheduled in May and June are getting worried. “Many couples planning to get married in the coming weeks and months are postponing their nuptials, as it will be less of a financial burden than canceling,” she said, but added that postponing can be complicated.

Sonal J. Shah of SJS Events compared the current situation to weddings around the time of Sept. 11, 2001. She told Fortune magazine that her clients are largely hosting destination weddings with hundreds of guests at each — many of them are reaching out for status checks even though their weddings aren’t set to take place until October, November, or December of this year

Shah told Fortune that she thinks that much of 2020 will play out like the months after 9/11, with fewer people willing to get on flights or head to far-flung destinations. Her job, like many other planners, has been keeping everyone calm.

For some weddings, guest counts are already going down because of worries about travel. And some brides- and grooms-to-be are asking for virtual rather than in-person meetings with their wedding planners

Some wedding planners say that though they haven’t had to cancel a wedding yet, they have had to postpone some travel because as vendors we don’t want to get stuck somewhere.

A Community Affected

Places of worship across all faiths and around the country as also exercising caution. The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, following the guidance of public health agencies, has closed all its temples across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia,, as well as suspend all public social and religious activities, including conferences, until further notice. BAPS says these steps are being taken “to proactively protect the health and safety of volunteers, visitors and local communities.” Although the drastic steps are necessitated by the nature of the pandemic, BAPS will continue to provide spiritual guidance to devotees, it says. As Dr. Viral Desai, an optometrist in Houston, Texas, says that although the situation is unfortunate, he will “use this time to come closer with my family through spiritual discussions, conversations, and bonding time.” Though all houses of worship are taking caution and are either closing their doors or restricting hours, they says that at a time when prayer, reflection and family activities can bring calm, solace, and peace of mind, they will hold novel methods for devotees to pray and participate in spiritual events.

Sewa International has also activated a hotline/helpline for non-medical advice at 281 909 SEWA (281 909 7392) for the Midwest, 708 872 SEWA (708 872 7392) for the Northeast, and 203 872 SEWA (203 872 7392) for Western United States.

According to Swadesh Katoch, vice president for Disaster Relief, the biggest concern among the Indian American community was “about schools, as every school district is responding differently to the evolving situation,” as most parents are not aware of the relaxation in attendance norms. The organization also wants to create awareness about panic related to buying and stocking up masks, sanitizers, toilet paper, and food items.

“We are especially concerned about the vulnerable population with weak immune systems, such as seniors, the sick, or very young children, Sewa International president Sree Sreenath said. “We are circulating WhatsApp messages with helpful information on how to prepare and take precautions. Various chapters in the U.S are directed to help local communities with up-to-date information as coronavirus related cases get confirmed in a particular area,” he said.

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