Agony in India hits home in Charleston

May 21, 2021
Map of India with coronavirus particles resting on top of it.
There have been more than 26 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India. iStock

When most people in the United States see stories about the coronavirus’ crushing impact on India, they’re horrified. The South Asian country recently set a world record for the number of deaths in a day. Hundreds of bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims have been found floating in the Ganges, India’s holiest river. And images on TV and online show makeshift clinics, severe oxygen shortages and funeral pyres.

But for Sarandeep Huja, dean of the College of Dental Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, it goes much deeper than that. India is where he grew up. And it’s intensely personal. “I'm trying to take care of my mom from here,” he said.

Huja’s mother, Kanwaljit Huja, is known as “Miti” to her friends. The retired teacher and homemaker lives in the city of Pune, near the western coast of India. The city of more than 7 million people is known as the “IT hub of India” and the “Oxford of the East.” It’s frequently ranked as the most livable city in India.

Dean Huja 
Dr. Sarandeep Huja

But the beauty and culture of the city, nestled by the Sahyadri Mountain Range, can’t protect it from the coronavirus. “The second wave has hit with a vengeance. I FaceTime my mom twice a day. We know so many people who have so unfortunately passed away due to COVID and many people have been affected by COVID,” Huja said. “There's no one who's not touched by this, whether it's in the United States or in India.”

He and his older brother, who runs an industrial automation company in Virginia, moved to the United States to pursue graduate degrees years ago with their parents’ support. “I came to the U.S. for an education and I stayed here. One of my mentors said, ‘Oh, no, no, you can't go back now. We’ve spent so much time in educating you. We want you to stay here.’ I've been very fortunate. I mean, I've been living a dream.”

Huja and his brother routinely make the 8,000-plus mile journey to Pune to visit. But the 2019 death of their father, a retired naval officer, raised the intensity of their concern about their mother. “After my dad's passing, she really needed company. I was supposed to go to India last year, and then obviously during the pandemic, I couldn’t.”

Huja’s mother, who he described as ailing from a condition unrelated to the coronavirus, needs full-time care. “It's an awful sense of helplessness, that you can't help your loved ones being so far away.”

He’s far away from a country he loves, too – a country in crisis. “A lot of people have been asking me what's been going on in India, and you know, there's not a clear answer. India is a country of 1.4 billion people. And only a small percent have been vaccinated.”

That’s despite the fact that the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines is in India. “India initially practiced some vaccine diplomacy, which seemed like the right thing at the time,” Huja said, referring to its decision to provide vaccines to other countries when India’s cases were relatively low. “But it seems now it is not able to provide for its own population.”

Huja was able to visit his mother in January of this year once he was vaccinated. She wasn’t, yet. But they made the most of their time together.

“It was such a thrill to see her. In India, when we meet elders, we touch their feet to seek their blessing. It was just so wonderful to be able to do that. I just wanted to spend every minute with her, even though at that time she was not vaccinated,” Huja said.

“I was wearing a mask all the time in her presence, but I just wanted to be of any service to her, just to hug her, to be with her.”

Kanwaljit Huja on the left is the mother of Sarandeep Huja. She lives in India. He is the dean of the College of Dental Medicine. 
Dean Huja's mother, left, with a caretaker. Photo provided

He still worried about her — but he was encouraged by how well India was doing. “Surprisingly, for some reasons that are not clear, India did not initially experience the COVID numbers that people anticipated it would. I was surprised, coming from the United States, by how low the numbers were and how well India was doing.”

But the pandemic wasn’t finished with India. People let their guards down, more contagious variants spread, and this spring, COVID-19 cases soared.

“I'm sure you've seen the pictures on television, people lying in cars or on the roadside, people are dying due to lack of oxygen. The infrastructure and the hospitals, both private and government-supported, are in crisis. It's just been tragic. India has amazing doctors, but it seems that the system has just collapsed under the surge of COVID,” Huja said.

He was happy to learn that his mother was vaccinated in April and thanked friends and colleagues at MUSC for their support. Now, he hopes the world will step up its aid to India with more vaccines, for people like his mother, and medical supplies for people who desperately need them.

“This is a global issue. We should not let our eye off that fact. It would be premature to say that we are done with this. We may be to a large extent in the United States, hopefully. But we are intertwined as a world. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

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