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Separated due to lockdown, family members are now counting down days

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Elizabeth Mathew, a retired schoolteacher, lives alone in the lush green village of Eraviperoor in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. At 84, she is still independent and leads a fairly busy life. She cooks the fresh produce from her garden, while the schoolchildren she coaches help her with her grocery and medicine shopping. But since the nationwide lockdown was announced, she has been feeling lonely and isolated from her family.

“None of my four children or grandchildren can reach me if there is a sudden serious health problem now as they are spread across the country and abroad. I miss them,” she says. “God will take care of me, and I have very helpful neighbours.”

Mathew’s daughter Rita Kuruvilla, who runs a private playschool in Bengaluru, also shares the anxiety. “I live the closest to her among all my siblings and I visit her often. But there is no way I can rush to my mother now in case of any medical issues. Flights, trains and buses are not operating normally and the state borders have also been sealed,” she says, explaining the reason for her apprehension. “The worst thing is that we don’t even know when things will open up either.”

Loved ones across the country share similar concerns as the lockdown forced upon citizens by the coronavirus pandemic keeps family members separated. The extension of the lockdown and speculation that it might go on for longer than expected has led to a lot of people — especially those like Mathew and Kuruvilla — feeling stuck and helpless.

But separation is not the only cause for worry.

For Krishna Chatterjee, the worry is that her visit to her son and his family in London has become indefinite after the Indian government banned all international flights in late March. Her son Kaushik, an IT professional, is unsure if he should be happy or worried his mother will stay with him longer.

“My mother is 76 and we are worried. The infection is spreading in the UK and older people are at higher risk. We renewed her medical insurance after it expired. But we are facing difficulties in sourcing some of her prescription medicine. We are trying hard to keep her safe at home,” says her son, adding that he will soon have to apply for a visa extension for her.

Chatterjee, on her part, is worried about her locked-up apartment in south Kolkata. “There are maintenance issues and bills to be paid. I am also very worried about being quarantined after I return to India. At my age, it will be very difficult for me to spend several days in any government hospital or facility. I am hoping and praying for the best,” she says.

Kaushik has booked a ticket for her on May 31. But the uncertainty is causing him unease. A state of anxiety, if prolonged, can cause physical and mental issues.

Ambiguity and insecurity seem to have spread in this period of pandemic. “Among my patients and friends, I find that the human mind often imagines the worst things will happen,” says Hvovi Bhagwagar, a clinical psychologist in Mumbai. “Children are worried about their aged parents living alone, spouses are worried about their partner and families living in another city or country, parents are worried about their children in colleges overseas. There is so much certainty. There are high levels of stress.”

In all probability, the uncertainty over travel is going to stay with us for a while. The ministry of civil aviation is yet to decide on opening of domestic of international flights. The railways and inter-state bus services are also likely to remain shut till the spread of Covid-19 is contained effectively.

Among those grounded because of the ban on flights is Parekhit Bhattacharjee, 37. After a vacation with his parents in Guwahati, the senior communication executive at Logitech and his wife were returning to his workplace in Shanghai when India grounded all flights.

“My wife and I got stuck in Delhi. We have been living in my cousin’s empty flat in Gurgaon hoping that flights would resume soon.” A spokesperson for Air India says as of now, only cargo flights are operational in the domestic and international routes and the carrier is not accepting any bookings. A recent Bloomberg report had said four of India’s top six airlines were selling domestic flight tickets for as soon as the third week of May, searches on their websites showed. Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, the report added, has said no commercial flights would be allowed to operate until the spread of the coronavirus has been controlled.

Meanwhile, the IATA Agents Association of India, one of the platforms representing large tour operators in India, has requested the civil aviation ministry to ask airlines to fully refund the payments received to book tickets during the lockdown. Both passengers and travel agents are facing severe hardships because of non-payment by airlines, according to IAAI.

Vidhu Gupta, 48, can’t wait for flights to take off as that is the only way he can be reunited with his wife and daughter in Dubai. Gupta, who runs a chemical trading business, had travelled to East Africa on work on March 15 but could not return before Dubai airport was shut.

“I managed to reach Delhi. After all health and immigration checks at the airport, I was able to reach my parents’ home in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. I have been stranded here ever since,” says Gupta. “I am worried that there is no timeline for resumption of flights. I miss my family.”

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