As India’s COVID-19 disaster continues to unfold, Africans in the country are facing grim health risks and financial hardships, with uncertain prospects of when they will be able to return home.
For many Africans living in India, the situation is worrisome and even desperate. The Indian healthcare system is stretched to its limit, as a second wave of COVID-19 infections has grown from around 15,000 new cases a day in early March to over 350,000 new cases daily by the first week of May. Medical staff are overworked, and there are severe shortages of oxygen and beds. “All the hospitals are full, completely full,” says Dr. Mohamed Elfatih Mido, a Sudanese health advisor in Hyderabad. “You won’t get a bed. They will supply you oxygen on the floor. On the floor,” he repeats with emphasis. “On the floor, you should take the oxygen. That’s how you’ll have to fight COVID-19.”
As India’s coronavirus crisis unfolds, Africans are among the infected and hospitalized. Dr. Mido says one of his Sudanese compatriots contracted COVID-19 while his immune system was weakened after a bout of tonsilitis and later died from complications caused by the virus. Ajah Peter Orji, a Nigerian lawyer and former President of the African Students Association, who now lives in the state of Telangana, says he knows of the case of a South Sudanese student who was admitted to a healthcare facility with COVID-19, but has not been heard of since. Joshua Boit, chairman of the Association of Kenyan Students in India, says he knows of two Tanzanians who have died, and of many other African students who have been infected.
The crisis is also introducing new health challenges for those who have not caught COVID-19, but who are suffering from other medical conditions. Dr. Mido is in touch with a Sudanese student who needs to be hospitalized due to a heart condition, but cannot get in due to new costs. “We can’t get him admitted,” the doctor explains. “Hospitals are asking for 1300 rupees (around US$18) per day to get oxygen and other medical services. The family cannot afford it.” In other circumstances, the student may have tried to return to Sudan, but flights are suspended.
Many African countries, including Sudan, Nigeria, and Kenya, have suspended in-bound travel from India in recent days, and as a result, many African tourists, students, traders, and those who had travelled to the country for medical treatments are now unable to return home.
“A lot of us are stranded,” says Ajah Peter Orji. “This could be as a result of not having the resources to purchase a ticket. Or it could be a result of airline restrictions.” African governments are also often unable or unwilling to expend the resources to charter flights home for their citizens. Speaking of his home country of Nigeria, Orji says, “I doubt that my government is making any plan for repatriations.”
According to Orji, who has lived in India for over a decade, African embassies are typically not aware of how many of their citizens are actually in the country. Many Africans are there illegally, and this population is likely in the most desperate situation at present. They are also, though, the group least likely to reach out for support due to their immigration status, even though some NGOs are promising help. But, says Orji, those who are in India illegally are cautious of even seeking assistance from registered students, even though they may know African students who could help them.
But “stranded” is likely not the right word for many Africans in India, according to Joshua Boit. “I know of a number of patients, but they are not stranded as such,” he says, even though flights back to Kenya are also suspended. Among the Kenyans Boit knows in India, he says many came as students and have now lived there for five or ten years. They have made their homes there.
Beyond the health risks, the current COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating economic hardships. “Financial challenges are rampant,” says Ajah Peter Orji. Students were already receiving less money from their families due to the pandemic’s economic impacts in their home countries, and they now have to increasingly fend for themselves. African traders working in India face business closures, travel restrictions, and curfews that have cut into their incomes.
Daniel Jacca Oyugi, a Kenyan engineering student, says African students currently enrolled in Indian schools have seen their studies disrupted by the health crisis. His university, the Cochin University of Science and Technology in Kerala, has shut down during the second wave, as have many others. Oyugi’s situation parallels other media reports of Kenyans at closed Indian schools, where they now face restrictions on movement that affect how and when they are able to buy food and continue to study.
A final challenge is misinformation. One of the most dramatic images of India’s COVID-19 disaster has been the open funeral pyres for the deceased. Rumors spread that Africans were also being forced to burn the bodies of the dead, but Joshua Boit says these reports are false and that embalming services are available. And there are plans, he says, to transport the embalmed bodies of the two Tanzanians who have died back to their home country.
Misinformation is also frustrating vaccination efforts. Despite a dramatic drop in vaccination numbers due to supply chain problems and the strain on the health system caused by the current crisis, India is still delivering about 2.5 million doses a day. But Africans living there are turning down the opportunity to be vaccinated. According to Orji, many are misinformed. “Last week,” he says, “a medic asked me how they can vaccinate the African community. I reached out to Africans, and they are skeptical of vaccines. They do not trust the vaccine due to myths, such as the belief that the vaccine causes death.”
Given the Indian COVID-19 crisis is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, Africans in India will continue to face significant health risks and financial hardships, with uncertain prospects of when they will be able to return home. “It will not go away in three months or six months,” says Dr. Mohamed Elfatih Mido. “It will take at least a year.”
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