Immigrant conundrums: parents, visas and Australian Citizenship during the pandemic

Jul 13, 2021

 As Indian Australians we reflect upon the emotional impact of Australia’s COVID-19 border restrictions upon the Indian community, for whom the care of the elderly parents they are now unable to see is a cultural sacrament.

In our position as Australian citizens who are also Bengali daughters, we suffer ceaseless angst over the plight of aged parents in India, frustrated by government policy which disqualifies parents as immediate family members. Consequently, parents are denied Australian entry visas during the pandemic.


With India ravaged by a second wave of Covid-19, family separation, anxiety, loss, and guilt are ongoing for Victorian Indian families still reeling from the impact of a fourth lockdown in the space of a year. Our personal experiences highlight the emotional and cultural impact of such policies on a community for whom care of elderly parents is a cultural sacrament. 

 

A commonly accepted conclusion is that every new experience teaches us something new and therefore makes us stronger. Little did we know that the global pandemic would teach us the skill of online funerals and make life in the diaspora more robust!

Having mastered long-term relationships over video calls for decades now (starting right back when heavy desk top computers did not come with webcams and inferior low-resolution ones had to be purchased at appliances stores as plug-ins), the transition to Zoom for daily activities was hardly a challenge to the migrant communities. However, what took the diaspora experience to a new level is the challenge of completing complex funeral rituals online and acceptance of the fact that people in our lives can vanish into the ether with absolutely no requirement of physical involvement.

 

Reshmi Lahiri-Roy bade a permanent farewell to her mother via Zoom and Anindita Banerjee did the same to her uncle. Last rites among Bengalis are a complex affair. While the cremation and related rituals happen on the banks of the Ganges, the family goes through thirteen rigorous days of mourning followed by a series of prayers that acknowledge the forefathers and wish for a smooth and pain-free transition of the soul to the afterlife.

These elaborate rituals and prayers were designed to give the time to the immediate family of the deceased to accept the loss of their loved one, to let go of their dependence and to learn to continue their daily life without their physical presence. When all these activities happen virtually, the sense of loss feels almost surreal and concomitantly unreal. As if, on our next visit to India, we will perhaps get to see them, in situ, unharmed.

But the reality is that these people, once intrinsic parts of our lives and permanently embedded into our memories and consciousness are now ashes which have been released floating into the Ganges; the holy river itself contaminated by uncremated bodies of the poor and abandoned, felled by the pandemic. 

 

With the borders closed, international travel banned indefinitely and rising death toll of the raging pandemic in India, there is a constant anxiety that prevails about who will remain by the time we get to visit. Relying on virtual connections only, it almost feels like a deadly video game with twisted real-life consequences. News of deaths of friends, family members, friends of friends, acquaintances, pour in everyday testing all the extreme coping mechanisms of long-distance familial relationships that migrants develop over time. The lack of ability to plan a trip in the foreseeable future adds another layer of anxiety and insecurity.  

 

Reshmi is the only child of a widowed father living alone in Kolkata supported solely by domestic help who themselves are at health risk given their dwelling conditions. Anindita, one of two daughters living overseas constantly worries about her ageing parents and grandmother who also reside in Kolkata.

Stress is embedded in our quotidian experiences as we deal with WhatsApp calls, Facetime and Zoom meetings which set our hearts beating with anxiety whenever parents complain of the mildest of coughs and colds. Hearts thudding, we wake up in the middle of the night often beset by nightmares of never seeing these parents again.

We grew up with the cultural understanding that caring for parents in old age and seeing to their last rites are necessary paths to spiritual salvation, for them as much as for us. Reshmi has already watched the family retainer immerse her mother’s cremated remains into the river, a task that rightfully should have been hers or her sons. She wonders if her remaining parent too will be the retainer’s responsibility; as last week her neighbour, another Indian Australian, was also refused an exemption to attend to his terminally ill father who subsequently died. 

 

With little hope of change to the current circumstances, despite government officials allowed to pay respects at ancestral graves, aspire to attend the Olympic games and invite sportspersons, it is important to understand how we can avoid replaying this deadly real life video game in the future, for all Australians who have parents overseas.

We would request for a review into the definition of immediate family under Australian government policy. It would perhaps be feasible for the government to consider issuing a ‘Parental Care Visa’ which allows family relationships, care, and duties to flow unabated and unimpacted by such trauma.

It is worth noting that many children are bereft of grandparental affection, many have not seen or been seen by grandparents since birth, and most importantly, ongoing stress is not conducive to the mental health of a population.

It is ironic to read of mental health initiatives being pushed forward in Victoria as we exit a fourth lockdown with the ever-present danger of a fifth in the state. Our nightmares are perpetuated as no clear end looms in sight as we vaccinate ourselves and ponder over a hazy four phase pathway to a hopeful normalcy.  

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