US Vice President Kamala Harris’ family in India grapples with COVID

WASHINGTON, May 7: G Balachandran turned 80 this spring, a milestone of a birthday in India, where he lives. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, he would have been surrounded by family members who gathered to celebrate with him.
But with the virus ravaging his homeland, Balachandran had to settle for congratulatory phone calls, including one from his rather famous niece US Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Unfortunately, because of the COVID, I cannot have such an elaborate function,” the retired academic said in a Zoom interview on Thursday from his home in New Delhi.
Harris’ uncle says he spoke with the vice president and her husband, Doug Emhoff, for quite a while. To close out the conversation, Harris assured him she’d take care of his daughter — her cousin — who lives in Washington.
“Don’t worry, Uncle. I’ll take care of your daughter. I talk to her quite a lot,” Balachandran recalls Harris telling him in their March conversation.
It was the last time they had a chance to speak. Since then, the coronavirus has raged out of control in India, overwhelming the nation’s healthcare system and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
While the crisis in India has created diplomatic and humanitarian challenges for the Biden administration, for Harris, it is also personal. Her mother was born there, and she’s spoken emotionally throughout her political career about the influence of her many visits to India as a child.
On Friday, she’s set to deliver remarks at a State Department event focused on the effort to combat COVID-19 in India, and she’s expected to express US solidarity with the nation.
Speaking at a fundraiser for the Indian nongovernmental organisation Pratham in 2018, Harris talked about walking hand-in-hand with her grandfather, PV Gopalan, and listening to him speak with friends about the importance of a free and equal democracy.
“It was those walks on the beach with my grandfather on Besant Nagar that have had a profound impact on who I am today,” she said.
She spoke often on the campaign trail about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a headstrong and resilient woman who bucked tradition and decided to leave India to pursue a career as a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
And during her acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Harris opened her speech with a shout-out to her “chithis” — a Tamil word for aunt. One of those chithis, Sarala Gopalan, is a retired obstetrician who lives in Chennai.
As a child, Harris used to visit India every other year. Now all that remains of her extended family there are her aunt and uncle. Another Indian-born aunt lives in Canada.
Balachandran said that while he used to hear about friends of friends getting the virus, now it’s hitting close to home. Those he knows personally or worked with are getting the virus, and some are dying.
“The conditions are pretty bad in India,” he said.