explainer

‘I am one of the 9,000 Australians stuck in India. This is what life is like right now.’

For Daisy Kohli, life right now is like being in the middle of a war zone, with the enemy all around, neighbours falling dead, and little to defend with.

Communities are holding mass cremations, dead bodies are seen lying on suburban pavements and the streets are filled with stress.

India, a country of 1.4 billion people, is in the trenches of the world’s worst coronavirus wave. In the past 24 hours, the country has reported more than 360,000 new infections, the largest single-day increase in any country since the pandemic. It’s the sixth time they’ve broken the world record in the past week.

Daisy Kohli is living in Ludhiana - a district about 300km from New Delhi - which is one of the cities experiencing a particularly high surge of new infections. 

She is one of the 9,000 Australians stuck in India, trying to come home. 

In India, communities are holding mass cremations amid the world's worst coronavirus wave. Image: Getty.  

Daisy and her husband have paid $8,000 for a repatriation flight via Japan set to fly on May 5. When I spoke to her, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had just announced that all flights to Australia from India would be suspended until at least May 15. She was informed of the government’s decision via a phone call from her brother-in-law and says she is yet to hear any information from the government themselves, despite being registered with DFAT.

“I’m confused,” she tells me. “And desperate.”

Daisy arrived in India on December 31, 2019, with the intention of looking after her elderly father for one year. Before then, she had lived in Canberra since 2007, working as an Assistant Teacher while her husband was a taxi driver.

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Now, Daisy is living in a household of six - herself, her husband, father, brother-in-law and both in-laws. Three of them are over the age of 80 with underlying health conditions.

“They are very concerned. They keep washing their hands. They do not go out of the house. They do not see anybody in person.”

At all times, everyone in the house is wearing a mask - whether they're reading a book or doing the laundry. The only time they will take it off is for their socially-distanced mealtimes. 

In Daisy’s neighbourhood, she can immediately think of about a dozen people currently infected with COVID-19. Two days ago, the man who lives in the lane behind her died from the virus. He did not get the treatment he needed because their local hospital is at capacity and oxygen is running out. He was around 50 years old.

“People are dying for no reason,” she shares.

 Daisy Kohli is one of the 9,000 Australians trying to fly home from India. Image: Supplied. 

Today, Daisy should have been receiving her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The 55-year-old feels lucky she even got her first dose, with so much death and disease around her, but its effectiveness feels futile without the second.

Alas, stocks have run out. Not only that, she can’t even travel because the gates to her district are locked - no one in, no one out, and very few exemptions. There is “security everywhere,” she adds.

On Sunday, they were given four hours notice that gates to their community would be indefinitely shut. People were instructed to get the essentials and then shut their doors.

“Panic was everywhere. People were stressed and shops were empty. The traffic conditions were so bad, no one was following any traffic rules."

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On top of the immediate devastation, Daisy is aching to return home to see her two sons who are 27 and 32 years old. In the year since they’ve been gone, her eldest son has been diagnosed with a spinal disorder and will soon undergo surgery. She prays she will be home in time to be with him. 

For now though, it’s a painful waiting game. Most of the information she receives is from a Facebook group called ‘Australians stuck in India’. She says she is empathetic of the Australian Government’s decision to protect their community from the threat of the virus, but she also wishes there was more communication from the government, instead of word of mouth through a Facebook group.

“Every day we leave the bed with stress. When are we going? That is the main thing that is moving around our heads all the time.”

Daisy with her husband and father-in-law. Image: Supplied. 

Compounding their stress is the strain on their finances. 

After nearly a year and a half away from employment, one of their biggest concerns is money. After all, they are still paying for their mortgage and bills back home in Canberra. 

“We are not earning even a single penny and the expenses are too much. It's hard to survive in India… Our savings are gone. Our bank account is almost empty.”

And now, with their flight likely not going ahead, they are even more worried.

“We have paid a lot to get the tickets. And if the flights are canceled, I'm concerned whether that money is safe or if that money is lost.”

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As they patiently wait, there is one thing bringing them joy, and that’s witnessing the camaraderie that has been born out of the catastrophe.

“The community is so helpful. One person the other day actually sold his car and all his valuables to buy some oxygen cylinders. Then he donated them for free for people in need, which is a great help. People are really helping each other.”

Daisy is trying desperately to come home. Image: Supplied. 

Daisy says even the friends she has made in the past year have offered huge support. 

“They all know that we both are from Australia, and when you are not in the country for 15 years, you don't know much about the shops. So they all help us.

“Every morning I get a call from one or two friends asking me if we need something. They will then drop it at our door for us if we need, which is really, really kind.”

Daisy knows she has no option but to stay, but says their bags are still packed.

"I am living without any purpose here. It's a big mental stress."

As for the possibility of being infected with the virus itself, she says it is difficult to even consider that option, and shudders to think of it spreading through her vulnerable household. But she is also not naïve to the precariousness of the pandemic. 

“I'm fine today, but I might not be fine tomorrow.”

If you’re in Australia, and would like to help India, here are just a few of the places you can donate to: 

  • Care India: This nonprofit organisation who has 70 years experience of providing relief to communities during disasters in India. They are currently working to provide PPE kits to existing care facilities in India and to set up temporary COVID hospitals. You can donate here
  • Ketto: This is a fundraising platform based in Mumbai, where a campaign is being promoted to get immediate access to oxygen concentrators across India. You can donate here
  • Youth Feed India and Helping Hands Charitable Trust: This fundraising platform is raising money to deliver rations to vulnerable residents of Mumbai. Their kits will feed a family of four for 15 days. Their aim is to ensure “no Mumbaikar goes to bed hungry”. You can donate here

Feature image: Supplied.