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Vice President Kamala Harris ’maternal uncle, Balachandran Gopalan, spoke to media outside his home in New Delhi, India, last November.
WASHINGTON (AP) – G. Balachandran turned 80 this spring, a milestone in his birthday in India, where he lives. Were it 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, a retired academic, had to settle for congratulatory calls. Including one of his rather famous niece: Vice President Kamala Harris.
During a Zoom interview Thursday from his home in New Delhi, Harris’ uncle said he spoke for a long time with the vice president and her husband, Doug Emhoff. To close the conversation, Harris assured him that he would take care of his daughter, his cousin, who lives in Washington.
“Don’t worry, uncle. I’ll take care of your daughter. I talk to her quite a bit,” Balachandran recalls Harris told her in his March conversation.
It was the last time they had a chance to talk. Since then, the coronavirus has been out of control in India, overwhelming the healthcare system and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Harris addressed the crisis in statements recorded at a State Department event on Friday about COVID-19 relief efforts in India. He said the rise in infections and deaths “is nothing more than heartbreaking” and said “India’s well-being is very important to the United States.”
He summed up U.S. aid to India, along with U.S. support to suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines to help other countries vaccinate their people more quickly. Harris noted that India helped the U.S. at the start of the pandemic when hospital capacity expanded.
“And today we are determined to help India in its time of need,” the vice president said.
While the crisis in India has created diplomatic and humanitarian challenges for the Biden administration, it is also personal for Harris: his mother was born there and has spoken emotionally throughout his political career about the influence. of her many visits to India when she was little.
Speaking at a fundraiser for the Indian non-governmental organization Pratham in 2018, Harris talked about walking hand in hand with his grandfather, PV Gopalan, and hearing him talk to friends about the importance of a free democracy. and the same.
“It was those walks on the beach with my grandfather in Besant Nagar that have had a profound impact on who I am today,” he said.
During the campaign, he often spoke of his late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a resilient, resilient woman who renounced tradition and decided to leave India to pursue a career as a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
And during his acceptance speech at the 2020 National Democratic Convention, Harris opened his speech with a shout out to his “chithis,” a Tamil word for his aunt. One of these chithis, Sarala Gopalan, is a retired obstetrician living in Chennai.
As a child, Harris used to visit India every two years. Now only his aunt and uncle of his extended family remain. Another Indian aunt lives in Canada.
Balachandran said that while he used to hear about friends of friends catching the virus, he now plays near home. Those he knows personally or with whom he worked contracted the virus, and some are dying.
Balachandran is considered one of the lucky ones as he is retired and largely left alone at home, leaving only occasional groceries, so “no one can infect me more than me.”
Her sister Sarala is the same, she says, and has largely isolated herself in her Chennai apartment to avoid exposure. Both are fully vaccinated, which they know is a luxury in India, which has suffered a severe shortage of vaccines.
This scarcity is part of what sparked criticism in India of what many saw as an initially scarce U.S. response to a humanitarian crisis that unfolded in the nation over the past month. Initially, the US refused to lift the ban on exporting vaccine manufacturing supplies, and received strong criticism from some Indian leaders.
When COVID-19 cases in India began to spiral out of control in April, other countries, especially the United States, were asked to get involved. While several countries, including Germany, Saudi Arabia, and even Pakistan’s traditional Indian enemy, offer support and supplies, American leaders were seen as dragging their feet.
The White House had previously highlighted the $ 1.4 billion in health care provided in India to help prepare for the pandemic and said when asked that it was in discussions about the aid.
The delay in offering more aid was seen as pressure on long-standing close diplomatic relations between the two nations, and on April 25, after being examined over the US response, several senior US officials they publicly offered more support and supplies to India, including a tweet and a call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, from President Joe Biden himself.
Harris’ niece in California, Meena Harris, has retweeted half a dozen accounts calling for more help from India, including one from climate activist Greta Thunberg who warns the global community to “step up and offer help immediately.”
Harris’ office declined to comment on the article.
The United States announced it would lift a ban on exporting vaccine-making supplies and last week began sending personal protective equipment, oxygen supplies, antivirals and other aid to India to help it fight the vaccine. virus.
The administration receives no criticism from SV Ramanan, administrator of Shri Dharma Sastha temple in Harris ’grandfather’s hometown, Thulasendrapuram, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, 350 kilometers from the coastal city of Chennai.
“Everyone has their priorities. America also went through something similar and we helped then. Now they are helping us,” he said.
Ramanan added that he did not expect Harris to be vice president to help India quickly or that it somehow meant that aid should have come sooner, adding: “I think, in general, everyone else countries should help and I’m glad the US has stepped up. “
He hopes Harris can visit his ancestral village when things get better.
Although Harris has adopted his Indian heritage as part of his political profile, in responding to the crisis there, he has been careful to speak from the perspective of a vice president rather than an American Indian concerned about the security of his family.
“We are all part of a global community. And to the extent that any of us, as human beings who have any level of compassion, see suffering anywhere in the world, it affects us all. You know, it affects us in all, “he told reporters last week in Ohio.
That day a ban on traveling to and from India was announced. Harris only said he had not spoken to his family since the ban was announced.
And G. Balachandran, Harris’s uncle, does not blame his niece for how the U.S. response has taken place.
He said that, knowing Kamala, “he would have done everything possible to expedite the matter.”
At the moment, he is satisfied with the occasional phone call from his niece. When the two talk, it’s mostly family; he doesn’t share much information about current affairs in India because, he joked, “he has a whole embassy that sends him cables every hour all over India!”
But he hopes to visit the vice president’s residence in Washington at the Naval Observatory when he can travel again. Balachandran said he would like to reunite with Biden and reminded him that the last time they met was when Biden was vice president and swore to Harris as a U.S. senator.
“I wish we could all be together at the same time,” he said of the extended family, “but that’s a great desire to look forward to right now.”
Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed to this report from New Delhi.