There have been such joyful days lately, when the COVID-19 vaccine clinics that Payal Sawhney helps organize at a Hindu temple in Norwalk are bustling, with thousands of people getting shots.
For the record:
3:03 p.m. May 16, 2021An earlier version of this article said Payal Sawhney’s mother-in-law had tested positive for the coronavirus. She was exposed but did not test positive.
Sawhney’s mother, in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, has COVID-19. Her brother does, too.
In the city of Gurugram, near New Delhi, her husband’s aunt and uncle tested positive for the coronavirus, as did their son and daughter-in-law, and their two children.
“It feels like, being immigrants between two countries, we are on a roller coaster ride, up and down, up and down,” said Sawhney, 44, of Cerritos.
Payal Sawhney, right, and Raji Satish, center, talk about the COVID-19 vaccine with a passerby on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.
“When it was bad in L.A. , it was good in India. We were at peace, at least, knowing our families back home were OK. Now, it’s getting good here and bad there. It’s just a cycle. It’s not ending for us.”
The homeland is overwhelmed with COVID-19, and many Indian Americans in California, home to more than 500,000 Indian-born residents — more than any other state in the U.S. — teeter between hope and despair. They cheer plummeting coronavirus cases and deaths and enjoy loosened pandemic restrictions here, even as they anxiously check on loved ones in India as it faces one of the worst outbreaks in the world.
“When it was bad in L.A., it was good in India. We were at peace, at least, knowing our families back home were OK. Now, it’s getting good here and bad there. It’s just a cycle. It’s not ending for us.”
— Payal Sawhney
In the temple courtyard, Sawhney — president of Saahas for Cause, a nonprofit that supports South Asian immigrants — watched people during their 15-minute waiting period after receiving their shots.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said of the clinics, which her organization coordinates.
There are some Saturdays the clinics are so busy that she goes home with an aching back, but a smile on her face. Other days, she walks through the Little India neighborhood in Artesia, trying to persuade people to get their shots, like she did in January.
Sawhney’s mother, a 65-year-old widow, was living with her in Cerritos when the pandemic began in March.
“We kept her in the house,” Sawhney said. “That really got to her. Her emotional health. Her mental health.”
By the fall, case numbers were starting to spike in L.A. County, and the situation seemed fine in India, where Sawhney’s brother’s wife had just had a baby. In November, her mother boarded a flight.
“We were nervous here,” Sawhney said. “We were telling her, ‘Don’t invite people! Wear a mask!’”
But people there felt the threat had largely passed, her mother told her.
Her mother, who got her first Covishield shot about a month ago, was between doses when she tested positive. She is staying with Sawhney’s brother, a Hyderabad hotel manager, who was also between shots when he got COVID-19, Sawhney said. His wife and 7-month-old son have not gotten sick, but they are isolated in the house.
Sawhney’s mother-in-law, also a widow, was in India most of last year. In November, she had a stroke, and Sawhney and her husband brought her to California to take care of her.
“The same saga happened,” Sawhney said. “She was homebound, lonely. That claustrophobia, the loneliness, the depression, the anxiety, all of that kicks in.”
In early April, she had another severe stroke. Her left side was paralyzed, and she started using a wheelchair. Her sister, who lived nearby, had been helping her, until she and everyone in her household tested positive for COVID-19.
Earlier this month, Sawhney’s mother-in-law flew back to California. She had to test negative for the virus before boarding the plane.
Raji Satish, left, and Payal Sawhney, second from left, talk about the COVID-19 vaccine to passersby on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia. “It feels like being immigrants between two countries; we are on a roller coaster ride …” Sawhney said of the differing COVID conditions in California and India.
Sawhney, a mental health clinician, and her husband, a physician, get calls at all hours of the day and night, from the U.S. and India.
Sawhney is on a WhatsApp group chat with classmates from her high school in the city of Pune.
“We were all sharing our school-time stories,” she said. “Happy, funny, silly, naughty story. Very soon, our group’s atmosphere changed to one of grief and sorrow. The naughtiness and laughter is gone. We are all just praying for each other.”
Times photographer Irfan Khan and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
The stories shaping California
Hailey Branson-Potts is a Metro reporter for the Los Angeles Times who joined the newspaper in 2011. She grew up in the small town of Perry, Okla., and graduated from the University of Oklahoma.
On Tuesday, May 12, 2021, India reached a new COVID-19 death toll. In just one day, more than 4,000 people died, bringing the country’s total death toll to more than 250,000. Mass cremations are filling cities with smoke, hospitals are overwhelmed, and many people of Indian origin in the U.S. are watching in horror and are trying to help.
That includes the nonprofit Saahas for Cause. They’ve identified different organizations in Mumbai and New Delhi to deliver food and other groceries to families in need. The group is also hosting community support circles, where Indians living in LA and Orange County can discuss their pain, grief, and shared resources.
Saahas for Cause is very excited to showcase the outcomes of last two years through several posters and panel presentations done at 5th annual South Asian Mental Health Consortium(SAMHC) conference. For Saahas, the clinical efforts and research always goes in sink. The posters are the reflection of us being data driven from the very first day.
We are very proud of our youth members and volunteers who have done innovative projects to address current issues that are faced by our community.
Saahas for Cause, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves the Indian American and larger South Asian community living in Los Angeles County and Orange County by educating, empowering, and enabling the immigrant community to improve their quality of life through its four chapters, is partnering with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
‘Saahas for Cause’, along with GOPIO-IE and COLAIAPA, hosted a seminar highlighting the mental and physical health effects of COVID-19 on March 7th, 2021. The Seminar featured Ting Qin, Associate Marriage & Family Therapist, and Dr. Vaishali Saste, M.D., Hematology-Oncology. The speakers discussed things to consider as we adapt to the “new” normal. Guest speakers discussed possible protective measures, practicing mindfulness, stress management, and the safety of the community.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been a redefining moment of our time. Many communities are suffering under an almost intolerable burden of loss. But the pandemic is much more than just a global health crisis. The pandemic has taken a toll on our emotional and mental health. The South Asian community considers mental health a silent and taboo topic to discuss putting additional stress on the community to cope with the pandemic.
Organizations such as Saahas have observed an increase in the number of people battling loneliness and separation anxiety due to limited interactions in the pandemic. Youth and older adults are being hit the hardest by this pandemic and current restrictions.
On the topic of mental health, Ting Qin presented some staggering data. “During late June, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use.” Qin says some factors causing the uptick in mental health or substance use include COVID-19 threat, job security, financial pressure, and aggravated pre-existing issues. After a COVID-19 diagnosis, nearly 1 in 5 people are diagnosed with a mental health condition. The road to recovery is long, but it is achievable through practicing mindfulness, monitoring and managing stress, helping others and selves to seek help from experts and professionals.
The road to recovery would only be possible if we took precautionary measures even as COVID-19 case rates fall.
Dr. Saste focused more on taking measures to keep everyone protected till everyone is vaccinated. With the approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the community is hopeful and looking ahead towards a return to a normal life. Dr. Saste emphasized wearing masks correctly, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distance. She addressed some common myths and conspiracy theories about vaccines. Dr. Saste also briefly outlined what life would look like after mass vaccination.
With more than 40 participants, many actively participated in the Q&A session and appreciated the effort of Saahas for Cause, GOPIO-IE, and COLAIAPA for giving a platform to address such important topics during this crucial time.
About ‘Saahas For Cause’:
Saahas for Cause is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that serves the South Asian community living in Los Angeles County and Orange County by educating, empowering, and enabling the immigrant community to improve their quality of life through its four chapters.
Saahas is also actively engaged in various community health and outreach events. One such project is working with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to serve the South Asian community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through resources and prevention.
The Corona Virus pandemic has changed and redefined the global health crisis of our time. With L.A. becoming the latest epicenter for this pandemic, we have now reached the tragic milestone of more than 1.19 million total cases and 21k plus deaths, and the communities suffering under an almost intolerable burden of loss.