Manveen Kaur Sethi might not have been able to save her mother from the coronavirus, but she could have been with her in India at the end.
Sethi also would have been better able to help her father, brother, sister-in-law and nephew secure the oxygen and medicines they still need for their continuing fight against COVID-19.
Yet because of some bureaucratic nonsense, she has remained stuck 7,150 miles away in Boston.
As the fully vaccinated mother of an American-born child and the holder of a valid visa to work as a research scientist in a lab that investigates COVID-19, Sethi knew she was qualified for reentry to the United States if she flew off to assist her critically ill family in Delhi.
But to make the return, Sethi would need to get her visa stamped by an American consulate official there. And between the travel ban and the lockdown nobody was willing to guarantee her an appointment to do that. She knew many such appointments had been canceled without warning and was not ready to risk being unable to return to her 3-year-old daughter for months or more. She also was not about to bring the child to India in the midst of a pandemic nightmare.
“I can risk my life, but not hers,” Sethi, 35, told The Daily Beast. “I have to choose between my daughter and my family.”
As a result, Sethi has been limited to calls and emails.
Meanwhile, all of what Sethi’s faraway relatives so desperately needed was in abundance at Boston University Medical School, where her lab is studying the infamous spike protein that enables the virus to invade human cells.
She and her husband had themselves fallen ill with COVID-19 as it swept the United States in March of last year. Their symptoms were mild and they made a full recovery.
“I remember my mom crying on the phone when I told her I was positive,” Sethi recalled. “But I was fine.”
At that point, India seemed to have escaped the COVID horror that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead.
“India was so low,” Sethi recalled. “It didn’t really affect India. That made [India] feel really superior.”
A year later, India was hit hard. Despite taking every possible precaution, Sethi’s mother fell ill on Sunday, April 25, followed by her brother that night and her father the following morning. Her sister-in-law and nephew were next.
“Like a chain reaction,” Sethi later said.
By that Wednesday, the family had gone ahead and gotten tested. Sethi’s brother messaged her the results.
“He said, ‘All of us are positive,’” Sethi would recall.
The mother became the most ill, but by that Friday she had begun to feel better.
“She actually got up from the bed and did a little bit of house chores,” Sethi later reported. “We were actually very positive on Friday.”
But on Saturday, the mother took a sudden turn for the worse. She was in desperate need of oxygen, but none was immediately available. They are Sikhs and the family ended up driving a half-hour to a temple that was dispensing it. The wait there was interminable.
The mother grew worse and began saying she knew the end was near.
“She start telling my sister ‘Take off my jewelry, it’s my time,’” Sethi later said. “She told my dad, ‘You should cremate me. Don’t let other people do that.’”
The family took the mother to a hospital, only to be turned away because it was full. They returned home and managed to find a bed in another hospital through a personal connection.
“But they said, ‘We don’t have oxygen, we don’t have medicine,’” Sethi would recall. “They said, ‘You would have to provide all that.’”
Sethi did what she could from afar.
“Sunday was a day of struggle,” Sethi said. “We struggled all day for oxygen.”
She called pharmacy after pharmacy in India in search of Remdesivir, a task made all the more difficult because it was Sunday and many of them were closed. She finally found somebody, a gouger who was selling it for many times the usual price; 30,000 rupees, or more than $400.
“Each dose,’” Sethi noted.
The family gave the mother an injection and it seemed to have no immediate effect. Sethi’s brother made a video call to her, and she saw her mother on a ventilator, her pulse faltering as the heart monitor recorded her final moments.
“I called to her,” Sethi told The Daily Beast. “She didn’t move her eyes.”
A week after she fell ill, 56-year-old Satinder Kaur Sethi was dead.
Manveen Sethi’s 3-year-old, Avnoor, had been watching her mother and the video image of her grandmother, whom she called Nani. The girl afterwards spoke to her father.
“My mom was saying, ‘Mumma! Mumma!’ and Nani was not responding,” the precocious girl said. “I was very sad.”
Manveen later said, “I was crying a lot. [Avnor] tried to comfort me. She was crying as well.”
Sethi went online and did a search for Covipri, the brand name of the injection purchased when her family would have been willing to pay anything.
“Beware of ‘Covipri’, the fake Remdesivir injection,” one of several similar reports read.
She was not sure whether the fake injection or the lack of oxygen or multiple organ failure had caused the death that she announced on Facebook “with profound grief and sorrow.” She then wrote:
When you die because you didn’t get oxygen: That’s India
When you die because you didn’t get the medicine or you get the fake medicine: That’s India
When you die because there were no hospital beds available: That’s India
When people are making use of the devastated state of sick people and doing business with thousand times higher prices on vital medical supplies: That’s India
When you die because the system failed you: That’s India
When government don’t care: That’s India
Shame on India! For the first time ever in my life I hate being called an Indian.
But India was the place of her mother, who always put others before herself and who always struggled on through hardship without complaint.
“She was a giver and a fighter,” Sethi said. “She was always smiling. A lot of people tell me, ‘Her smiling face is in front of me.’”
As sick as he was, Sethi’s father, 62-year-old Narinder pal Singh Sethi, carried out his wife’s wish that he personally cremate her. He then returned to what the family termed “home ICU.”
Her father’s condition improved. Her brother, 31-year-old Prabhdeep Singh Sethi, became sicker and he was admitted to a hospital. The sorry shape of India meant there was no convalescent plasma on hand. The treatment’s value has not been established, but there was a chance it would help, and Manveen posted a Facebook plea:
“Plasma needed,” the post began.
On Thursday, she texted an update to The Daily Beast.
“Some donor reached out to my family,” she wrote.
She then reported regarding her brother, “Critical in hospital, got plasma treatment today, doctors think might recover now… started to improve today.”
But instead of being on Facebook, Sethi should have been able to be with her brother and with her father. And she would have been there if somebody had been willing to assure her she was guaranteed the opportunity to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement that was ultimately unnecessary anyway.
When asked about the plight of Sethi along with hundreds, perhaps thousands of visa holders separated from their families for want of a stamp, the U.S. State Department press office responded with a general regurgitation of dispassionate policy on background. It was not worth quoting anyway.
On Friday afternoon, Manveen went online to a State Department web page titled “APPLY FOR A U.S. VISA in India.” She hoped that maybe now she could book an appointment to get the needed stamp in Delhi.
After she filled out a profile and paid a $190 fee, a message appeared on her screen:
“There are currently no appointments available...First Available Appointment is Wednesday February 2, 2022.”