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.