Making our way back home
February went by smoothly with outings, authentic Punjabi food, visiting relatives, sightseeing, shopping and more. The entire holiday was a lot of fun and a much-needed break for all of us. All the while, I kept an eye on the situation of the pandemic in India. There was hardly any outbreak in the country when I landed, and it seemed safe to stay especially in the area where we lived. And it was safe, until mid-March when I observed things were getting worse in many parts of India.
Our return tickets were booked for March 24th as we got ready to get back home to Hong Kong. I still remember we were in the market doing a bit of last minute shopping on March 21st when the Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi announced a curfew for one day. People panicked and bought groceries and necessities for their homes. Suddenly there were massive traffic jams on roads and highways as people tried to get home on time. It was just one day, and what a nightmare it was.
On March 22nd, Narendra Modi Ji announced a complete Lockdown in India for 21 days. That announcement was of such magnitude that it almost blew my mind. It created a complete scene of panic in the minds of many people. My kids were equally unprepared and like me, shocked. Apart from the fact that we were supposed to fly out on March 24th, the uncertainty of the situation made me very anxious. I questioned Modi Ji on social media for not giving us a heads-up a few days before such a big announcement.
My post received a lot of judgmental comments since people had no idea what we were going through. Even though India seemed safer while in lockdown, my mind was filled with doubts. There weren’t enough health kits in India, medical care was not as advanced as in Hong Kong where I have lived all my life, and people lacked awareness as they were carelessly roaming the streets without protective gear such as masks or sanitizers.
Soon after the lockdown was imposed, I got a call from a dear friend who voiced frustration over the cancellation of flights. We were both very stressed as when we came to India with our kids; we came knowing we would be back home soon. And like many others, our husbands did not make the trip with us and were very much back in Hong Kong. Our jobs, and so much more were all at stake.
That conversation led to us forming a WhatsApp group to include other stranded families we knew in India. I posted about the WhatsApp group on my social media and the first group (Group 1) soon filled up, with the majority of people who were stuck in Punjab. We started a second group with requests coming in from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad etc. The initial count of stranded Hong Kongers in India came to be over 700 people. Then my husband Sukhbir approached Mr Vijay Hariliela and Mr Chugani and asked for their help in communicating the plight of the stranded people to the HK government. They helped get the message across to Hon Legco Member Mr Jeremy Tam. Next day the SCMP covered the story in their paper, and many political parties came forward to help us. Some others, like Mr Vijay Seth, came forward as well. With the efforts of Mr Mohan Chugani and Mr Vijay Seth, we approached Regina Yip.
She helped greatly and arranged our first meeting on April 16th 2020 with Security Bureau and then on April 22nd 2020 with Indian Consulate. This was our first success leading towards our goal to get people back here. We also formed a committee to further assist in forwarding our matter through every possible channel that could help. Our committee approached Hong Kong authorities collectively. One of the group members, Lovi Gill, volunteered to organize the data of those stranded across the country and prepared a list. A committee of 7 members was formed including Sukhbir, Lovi Gill, Harry Baath, Kavita Khosa, Amar Khosa, Manjit Dhaliwal and me. Lovi Gill too was stranded in India with his parents. Kavita Khosa, an ex-lawyer, was also stranded in Pune whereas her husband Amarjeet Khosa, a Barrister, was in Hong Kong. Harjit Baath was in HK, but his wife and mother were stranded in India. Manjit was in Hong Kong, but his kids and other family members were stranded in India. Our goal was to approach government officials and political parties for prompt evacuation of Hong Kong ID and passport holders and people with Hong Kong work visas.
By April a few of the committee members in Hong Kong, Harry Baath, Amar Khosa and Manjit Dhaliwal organized a press conference with Claudia Mo and wrote letters and petitions to the HK Government and related gov. offices regarding evacuation flights. They contacted Air India, and other airlines for quotations on ticket prices as none of our earlier bookings were now valid. The team had multiple discussions with the Security Bureau (SB), including the Immigration department and health department. The day finally arrived when during the meeting of April 25th 2020, the SB announced to start evacuating people from India.
Meanwhile, in India, a handful of us were making sure we could get in touch with as many people as possible who needed to get back home. Many people were under depression because families had now been separated for months. Some young children had been apart from their mothers and were under lockdown with ageing grandparents. We tried our best to speak to as many as possible, lending support. Soon with God’s grace and the efforts of volunteers a flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong was arranged with a total of 260 passengers on board. Travelling during the pandemic has proved to be incredibly stressful. A few of us decided to play monitor and help people maintain social distancing on the flights. Many travelling in PPE suits, all in masks and other protective gear, just the sight of the passengers was enough to cause unease. On arrival to Hong Kong and after finishing our Covid-19 test (deep throat saliva), we were directed towards the Fo- Tan quarantine centre where all the arrangements for our stay were already made. While the quarantine staff tried to make our stay as comfortable as they could, there were still many challenges we faced like language barriers, food preference, no activities for kids, mental stress etc.
These issues further inspired a few of us (Manish Suri, Bhaskar Tiwari, Heena Khemlani, Harry Baath, Vishal Khanna, Reena Khanna, Vipul Kumar Jain, Pooja Jain, Lovi Gill, Mahek Anil Kumar, Ansah Malik & Mohit Kumar Agarwal) to make a group to assist future incoming people from India who would be in quarantine as well. We made a list of some basic things that would make the stay more comfortable and put together activities and other forms of support for them.
- 80 air- coolers for the quarantined folks provided by Mrs. Purviz R Shroff and Mrs. Ranoo Wasan. Three of our volunteers donated 4-5 pieces each as well and some of us contributed money for more coolers.
- Milk and bottled water supply along with occasional delivery of 3 in1 tea and snacks.
- Various online classes like yoga, art, dance etc. to keep children and adults occupied.
- New toys and goody bags for toddlers and very young kids to keep them happy and busy.
- Art competitions in different age groups to encourage older children and keep them motivated.
Most importantly, we formed a team of few members who are continually providing emotional support every day by sharing inspirational thoughts and counselling if need be. As challenging as this experience has been, it will stay with us forever. I have made new friends, seen first-hand support and love that strangers can offer each other in difficult circumstances. Our job is far from over. Currently, 7 active groups are spanning over 8 cities in India, with approximately 4000 Hong Kong residents and people with work visas still stuck in India. It is our goal to help as many as we can to get back to their families, jobs and lives here.
By Gurpreet Kaur