G. Balachandran celebrated his 80th birthday this spring, a significant birthday in India, where he lives. He would have been surrounded by family members who had gathered to rejoice with him if not for the coronavirus pandemic.
Balachandran had to make do with congratulatory phone calls as the virus ravaged his homeland. One from his well-known niece, Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States.
“Unfortunately, I cannot have such an elaborate feature because of the COVID,” the retired academic said in a Zoom interview from his home in New Delhi on Thursday.
Harris' uncle claims he spent a long time talking with the vice president and her partner, Doug Emhoff. To end the talk, Harris told him that she will look after his daughter, her cousin, and live in Washington.
“Don't be concerned, Uncle. I'll look after your daughter. In their March conversation, Harris told Balachandran, "I speak to her quite a bit."
It was their last opportunity to say something. Since then, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc in India, wreaking havoc on the country's healthcare system and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Although the crisis in India has posed diplomatic and humanitarian challenges for the Biden administration, it is also personal for Harris: her mother was born there, and she has spoken passionately about the impact of her many visits to India as a child during her political career.
She'll speak at a State Department event focused on the fight against COVID-19 in India on Friday, and she'll likely express US solidarity with the nation.
Harris spoke about walking hand-in-hand with her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, and listening to him speak with friends about the value of a free and fair society at a fundraiser for the Indian nongovernmental organization Pratham in 2018.
“Those walks on the beach with my grandfather on Besant Nagar were formative in shaping who I am today,” she said.
On the campaign trail, she often mentioned her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a powerful and determined woman who defied tradition by leaving India to pursue a career as a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Harris also gave a shout-out to her "chithis" — a Tamil word for aunt — during her acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Sarala Gopalan, a retired obstetrician from Chennai, is one of those chithis.
Harris used to go to India every other year when he was a child. Her aunt and uncle are the only remaining members of her extended family. Another aunt was born in India and now lives in Canada.
Although he used to hear about friends of friends having the virus, Balachandran says it's now reaching close to home. Those he knows or served with have contracted the virus, and some have died as a result.
“The situation in India is pretty bad,” he said.
Balachandran finds himself fortunate in that he is retired and spends most of his time at home alone, leaving only for groceries, so "nobody can infect me but myself."
Sarala, his sister, is the same, he claims and has largely isolated herself in her Chennai apartment to avoid publicity. Both of them are completely vaccinated, which he understands is a privilege in India, where vaccines are in short supply.
This scarcity is one of the reasons why India has been critical of the United States' initial response to a humanitarian crisis that has erupted in the country over the last month. Some Indian leaders were outraged when the US declined to lift a ban on the export of vaccine manufacturing supplies.
When COVID-19 cases in India began to spiral out of control in April, there were calls for other countries to intervene, especially the United States. While several countries, including Germany, Saudi Arabia, and even India's traditional foe Pakistan, offered assistance and supplies, US leaders were seen as being slow to act.
The White House had previously stressed the $1.4 billion in health aid given to India to aid in pandemic preparedness and had previously stated that it was in talks about assisting when asked.
The delay in providing additional help was seen as straining the two countries' long-standing close diplomatic ties, and on April 25, following criticism of the US response, several top US officials publicly offered additional support and supplies to the country, including President Joe Biden's tweet and phone call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Meena Harris, Harris' niece in California, has retweeted a half-dozen accounts calling for more help to India, including one from climate activist Greta Thunberg, who urged the international community to "step up and provide urgent assistance."
For this post, Harris's office declined to comment.
The United States declared that the export ban on vaccine manufacturing supplies would be lifted and that it would send personal protective equipment, oxygen supplies, antivirals, and other assistance to India to aid in the fight against the virus.
S.V. Ramanan, a temple administrator at the Shri Dharma Sastha Temple in Harris' Indian grandfather's hometown of Thulasendrapuram in Southern Tamil Nadu state, 215 miles (350 kilometers) from the coastal city of Chennai, has no criticism for the administration.
“Everyone has his or her own set of goals. America went through something similar, and we aided them at the time. They're now assisting us,” he said.
“I think in general all other countries can help, and I'm glad the US has stepped up,” Ramanan said, adding that he didn't expect Harris' appointment as vice president to speed up aid to India or imply that it should have come sooner.
He hopes Harris will be able to visit her ancestral village once things have improved.
Although Harris has made her Indian heritage a part of her political profile, she has been cautious to speak from the viewpoint of a vice president rather than an Indian American concerned about her family's safety when reacting to the crisis in India.
"We are all members of a global society." And it affects all of us to the point that all of us, as human beings with any degree of humanity, see suffering everywhere on the planet. “It affects us all,” she told reporters in Ohio last week.
That day, the government declared a travel ban to and from the country. Just that she hadn't talked to her family since the ban was declared, Harris said.
Harris' uncle, G. Balachandran, doesn't blame his niece for how the US answer has turned out.
Knowing Kamala, he said, “she would have done whatever she could to expedite the matter.”
For the time being, he'll take the occasional phone call from his niece. When the two chat, it's all about family; he doesn't say anything about current events in India because, as he joked, "she's got an entire embassy sending her cables every hour on the entire country!"
He hopes to pay a visit to Vice President Biden's residence at the Naval Observatory in Washington when he can fly again. Balachandran expressed interest in meeting with Biden again and reminded him that the last time they met was when Biden was vice president and swore in Harris as a United States senator.
“I wish we could all be together at the same time,” he said, “but that's a huge wish to look for right now.”