CHANDIGARH — On March 22, Ravi Pyla, an Indian software engineer based in Muscat, learnt that his three-month-old son back home in a village near Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, was unwell.
“Rihaan was facing some breathing problems and crying continuously from the last few hours. My wife took him to the local hospital. She was asked to get a 2D echo scanning done but then the staff had already left for the day,” Pyla told HuffPost India over the phone. “Next morning, Rihaan suddenly stopped breathing.”
Rihaan, as Pyla subsequently heard on the phone, had died. On March 23 and 24, Pyala posted a series of heartrending videos beseeching Indian authorities, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to help him return home for his son’s funeral. But the suspension of flights made it impossible. (Most of the videos have since been deleted.)
“They wanted to help but could not do so due to the suspension of the flights due to COVID scare,” Pyla said. His family delayed the funeral, but reluctantly went ahead once it was clear that Pyla would not be able to attend.
Pyla watched the funeral on a WhatsApp video call streamed by his cousin Swaminathan.
The coronavirus pandemic has claimed lives and separated loved ones across the world. With 17 million expatriates living and working across the world, Indian families have been particularly vulnerable to the global disruption of air-travel. Even as citizens gradually acclimatise to living in lockdown with video-conferencing tools serving as their only link to the outside world, nothing can normalise the WhatsApp funeral.
As India grinds through a 21-day national lockdown, Pyla’s family tragedy is likely to be mirrored across the country. Under the guidelines issued by the Union Home Ministry, all road, rail and air links between cities stand suspended and funerals congregations have been limited to a maximum of 20 people — implying many Indians will be unable to be physically present with their families in their time of grief.
Thus far, India appears to have limited the highly infectious coronavirus to those who either have a travel history to a virus hotspot, or have come in contact with someone who has. The stringent provisions of the 21-day national lockdown, the Indian government and health authorities say, is the only way to prevent the infection from entering a community-spread phase that could quickly overwhelm India’s rudimentary public health system.