Uncertain Future: Indian-Americans wary but poised for challenge of reopening during COVID-19

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New Jersey Department of Education header photo from Twitter. (Photo: Twitter)

Indian-Americans, as a community, are one of the worst hit minorities in the United States from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, though not enough stories about them can be found in mainstream media. While they may be the highest earning and highest educated group in the nation as a whole, the virus has been quite an equalizer in its impact.

Nevertheless, as a community with a good savings culture, some of them may be in a somewhat better position to weather the storm. But many have been hit beyond their worst nightmares.

They, like much of America, send their children to public and private schools, daycares, and higher education, where their children get admitted (or discriminated against) because of their academic and volunteering achievements, and not through bribery and privilege.

Indian-Americans are noticeable players in several sectors of the economy — highly visible in intensive care units, emergency departments, nursing stations, and hospital management (The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin estimating every 7th American is treated by an Indian/South Asian doctor); They own and operate some 50 percent of the hotel/motel industry and therefore also contribute significantly to tourism; they are an important segment in the rest of the hospitality industry such as restaurant and fast-food franchises, grocery stores, jewelers, wedding planners, not to mention mom-&-pop convenience stores, and gas stations, trucking enterprises, plus being employed in all these businesses.

So when parents, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs, hotel owners,  dentists, engineers – groups that are not all mutually exclusive — think about relaxing of COVID-19 regulations, they are predictably, both hopeful and scared. News India Times spoke to numerous Indian-Americans around the country to get their reactions to reopening.

Health Workers

One couple Sahina Islam, a biochemist, and her husband Dr. Choudhury Hasan of Flushing, New York, have no intension of sending their three kids back to school this September, as envisioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The New York Post reported Islam and Hasan would wait for a vaccine.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, and author of the book “Together” just out, posted on Twitter May 15, 2020, that in the last few weeks, he had spoken to large and small businesses, sports teams, universities and non-profits about their approach to reopening during COVID-19. “There is widespread confusion about how to reopen safely,” Murthy concluded, noting four areas of concern.

How to go about testing employees, how often, and the cost. For some businesses it could be “crippling,” Murthy concludes.

What if someone tests positive in the organization or business or school – do we need to shut down completely, or begin contact-tracing and other steps.

If a state says to reopen but your town does not meet the criteria set by Centers for Disease Control, what does one do?

First responders in Teaneck., NJ hold up sign in support of those deal with the coronavirus in the township. It was retweeted by Indian-American Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin (Photo: Mayor Hameeduddin’s Twitter post)

If we count how many employees are either high risk (older, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, etc) or live with someone who is high risk, “Realistically, how do we protect the vulnerable per CDC but still open up?” he asks. Per CDC guidelines, a safe reopening requires 5 elements a) sustained reduction in cases, b) expanded testing c) tracing and quarantine capacity, d) adequate PPE and hospital surge capacity, e) clear guidelines for people and organizations.

Many communities, cities, and states are falling short of these guideposts.

Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, chairman of Parikh Worldwide Media and ITV Gold, who has a string of allergy and immunology clinics in the New York, New Jersey area, believes slowly reopening is the need of the hour.

“Now the number of new cases, hospitalizations, admissions to ICUs, and the number of beds are all going down significantly (in the tri-state area). And you can see that infections in health care personnel is low now despite them being so close to patients. So it is time to reopen the economy and the country, provided people understand and have a sense of personal responsibility,” Dr. Parikh said. He advises basic protocols – wear a mask, keep the six feet social distance, and wash hands. “Then the chances of getting the virus are very small,” he said. Furthermore, he contends this virus has a cycle of ten weeks, and its ability to infect reduces.

Dr. Kaninika Verma, an internist in Peoria, Illinois, has a similar reaction about the need to slowly reopen. Despite serving repeated weeks in the ICU with COVID patients for months, she is reasonably confident the numbers are going down through her personal experience on the ground.

“We definitely need to get the economy going. We can’t continue being in quarantine,” Dr. Verma said, but, “We need to make decisions based on data,” she cautions, although, in Illinois, the numbers are going down.

“Where I am right now, our numbers are going down. The rate of cases coming in is not like at the beginning of May,” around the time this reporter had called her the first time. Best practices to help ensure a smooth reopening, she says requires that we, “maintain the distance, wear a mask if you can’t, good hygiene, hand wash, hand wash, hand wash.” But, “Don’t wear gloves because it gives a false sense of security.” She cites research showing that the virus does not stay on surfaces as long as earlier thought.

Living in the Western world, Indians have become so used to thinking everything is clean and hygienic that they don’t bother to wash their hands like Indian parents taught their kids back home, Dr. Verma says.

Lawmakers

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, echoed Dr. Verma’s comments, noting that on May 26, 2020, Governor Jay Robert Pritzker announced the virus was trending downward on key indices. “So we are going into Phase 3 for plans to reopen. The Governor has done a good job based on what science and data tell us,” says Krishnamoorthi.

The Congressman also has an inside track on how things are unfolding on the ground. “My wife is working with COVID patients and even she is telling me beds are opening up in ICUs and cases are less acute,” he told News India Times.”Given that, we should open in a deliberate and safe way. So people will wear masks, practice social distancing, etc. And we need to make sure barber shops and stores open safely.”

Krishnamoorthi is the chairman of the Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill, and he has worked on anti-body testing to make sure it is regulated, safe, and validated by the CDC. “If testing is done safely, some people could donate blood safely, and if that works, it would be great.” He foresees a vaccine becoming available only some time in 2021, contrary to some predictions about end of 2020.

In this 2006 file photo, audience members react to a solemn tribute to those who have died during the National Memorial Day concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

Ohio State Representative Niraj Antani, R-District 42, notes how many governors have already chosen to “safely reopen” their economies, “and have not seen a corresponding case increase.”

“Understandably so, hot spots such as New York City and Los Angeles have been slower to reopen. However, we just take more steps to protect our frontline healthcare workers and the many Indian American physicians,” said Antani who is running for the Ohio State Senate this November.

North Carolina State Senator Jay Chaudhuri indicates his state is more cautious. “North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has led our state in a gradual reopening process that’s been based in science and data.  That said, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Chaudhuri told News India Times via email, adding, “We must increase our unemployment benefits, help our small businesses, and make sure voters can vote from home.”

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced important steps on May 26, to loosen COVID-19 restrictions of the past two months. In person graduations could be held starting July 6, and professional sports teams can hold training sessions. New Jersey reported 2,723 patients in hospitals as of May 25 night, down 66% from the on April 14, when 8,084 patients were being treated, reported NJ.com.

Hoboken, New Jersey Mayor Ravinder Bhalla already began loosening the COVID strings from mid May, with the low numbers he and his township had been able to secure by strictly observing protocols and ramping up testing. Social distancing and masks at partially opened parks, widening foot traffic in the restaurant areas, allowing fitness clubs to conduct exercises in demarcated park areas.

Businesses

Doug Hassebroek picks up balloons for the birthday celebration of his son Felix during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., April 18, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

The Asian American Hotel Owners Association, the largest trade body of Indian-American hotel and motel owners, cancelled its Aug. 9-12 annual convention in Orlando.

“This pandemic hit the hotel industry particularly hard, and owners and employees alike continue to struggle,” Danny Gaekwad, chairman of OSEM Hospitality Management is quoted saying in a May 20, 2020 meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. “Reopening our businesses with common sense precautions that prioritize the health and wellbeing of employees and guests will help our industry and our state get our economy moving again,” Gaekwad, of Ocala, Florida, said, according to a press release from AAHOA.

Along with the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers as well as the Latino Hotel Association, AAHOA reached out to the U.S. Congress as it considers additional stimulus legislation, outlining five key areas where congressional action can help speed the industry’s recovery. They want provisions to benefit employees, safe harbor provisions for hotels, industry solvency, technical corrections to Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs, and the incentivizing travel and tourism.

“Indian stores, hotels, restaurants etc. are going to see a depressed demand with the cancellation of conventions and business meetings and travel,” Rep. Krishnamoorthi surmised. “Yet, we don’t want to go into a situation where we are pressed to lockdown again. It would shake the confidence of customers. But if we open safely and gradually and keep these businesses operating, we can get back after Fall.”

Mahesh Shah, vice chairman of the Indian Business Association, N.J., was pleased with steps being undertaken to open up businesses. “In my mind, testing is the biggest part. I know. I am a pharmacist.” With testing open to all, it would prevent passing the virus. “People can go and do testing at the more than 2,000 pharmacies around New Jersey,” he said agreeing with Gov. Phil Murphy’s steps to make this happen. Shah noted however that “everybody is worried and so many people have died. You have to be careful.”

Oak Tree Road, the Little India in Edison, N.J., remains closed. He urged the governor to allow opening the stores in that area with all the rules of social distancing and masks, and temperature checking at the door. “Oak Tree merchants can do it. This is a question of survival,” Shah said. Besides, even after the opening people will take time to return for shopping, he contended.

Shah has kept his auto-repair shops open through the pandemic; it is considered an essential service. “Initially, people stopped coming but when they saw how we were functioning and the precautions we were taking, they started coming.”

Most members of IBA, Shah says, got help from the PPP, made easier by the organizations good relations with local banks like Indus and Northfield. And New Jersey also gave $5,000 to small businesses as grants.

“Everything is not rosy,” Shah admits, “Not everyone will come back, but most of Oak Tree will return,” he said.

The cancellation of all Indian weddings for this year is a blow below the belt, indicates Priti Pandya Patel, president of the Asian Indian Chamber of Commerce. That means all related merchants from jewelry to clothes, and food, are even more dramatically affected, and will take a long time to recover. “Our wedding alone are 600-800 people and all related businesses are feeling the ripple effect,” Pandya Patel says.

She is on the Governor’s New Jersey Restart and Recovery Advisory Council, and she is not optimistic about early recovery. To have businesses reopen, they needed to follow strict protocols. “We need to start NOW,” she says urgently. “The mental health of people is really going down.”

Tampa, Florida businessman Aakash Patel gave kudos to the local and state governments, for adopting a slow reopening approach two weeks ago. “Many of the Indians I deal with are getting some returns already – the hospitality industry and restaurants, gas stations. And many have received the PPP,” he told News India Times. Many of the employees are being hired back, and he said Indians were networking to help each other. “Our community is working together despite the competition,” Patel said.

In California, a state that managed to control its fatalities and keep them well below that of New York state, is trending down, though the true number of those infected is unknown and likely much higher than the official count, according to Los Angeles Times.

While the focus of the virus is moving to Southern California, especially Los Angeles County, hospitals are holding up and admissions have remained steady; testing is more widespread, and the highest toll continues to be among seniors (about 75 percent of those dead are 65 and above), the LA Times’ independent tally shows. California is slowly ramping up its reopening.

The story is different for the Indian-American community, says Raj Desai, executive director of the Indian Community Center in Silicon Valley, which has gone totally online offering some 50 programs and 2,000 meals three times a week to seniors.

“We are supporting a huge Indo-American community, and I don’t know of anyone in our large community who has lost his or her life,” Desai told News India Times. Desai nevertheless, is worried about the underlying conditions that many Indians suffer from, diabetes to heart disease.

“It’s a very disciplined community, keeping in touch with the news and updates on social distancing. Indian grocery stores are observing all the protocols. I don’t see anyone venturing out or throwing parties. All contact events are cancelled till October,” Desai says.

Being the technological hub of California, most people are working from home and large companies like Google have told employees that’s how it is going to be till December. Of the 250,000 strong Indian and Indian-American community in Silicon Valley, barely 25,000 are employed outside IT, according to Desai’s estimate.

He foresees Indian-owned businesses taking time to come back. “Restaurants, hotels, gas stations – are really taking the brunt. How will they pay their rent if they have to open with just 50 percent of their capacity, or just 25 customers?” he says.

But Indian grocery stores are doing “exceptionally” well, as are some take-out restaurants. “Who can refuse Hyderabadi Biryani take-out?” he asks.

 

 

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