Walk out your doorstep into the humid Philadelphia spring, and you can touch the closest thing to normal in more than a year. From the crowds at Phillies games and the Flower Show to the diners and shoppers on Main Streets throughout the region, joy and relief are palpable.
But instead of fully celebrating, Sheikh Siddique has been working on getting to Bangladesh — hoping case rates there will be low enough by next month that he can finally see his family. He has tried to go twice before and had to cancel both times.
Because of the pandemic, Siddique, an Upper Darby Township Council member, missed his 106-year-old father’s funeral last year. Then his brother died of the coronavirus, and he missed his funeral, too. He’s been watching the case surge in India, praying it won’t overwhelm the medical system in neighboring Bangladesh.
“At this moment, here in America, we are in good shape. The virus is declining day by day,” said Siddique. “But back home we don’t know. … I’m worried for my family. If the variant from India comes to Bangladesh, it will be terrible.”
As infections in some countries rage and the distribution of the vaccine varies worldwide, Philadelphians worrying about loved ones in other places feel the coronavirus’ continued grip. With systemic inequities pervasive here and communities of color especially hard hit by the pandemic, reopening doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Philadelphians from countries suffering high cases and low vaccination rates can’t visit, they can’t send vaccines, they can’t bury their dead relatives. They follow alarming news coverage, worry about hospital bed space, and see how inequality amid the surges and lockdowns threatens lives, livelihoods, or both.
It’s “just impossible to see each other,” said Emilio Parrado, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor who studies migration and is from Argentina. He hasn’t been able to travel to see his family, and they’ve been unable to come here. “You feel even more isolated.”
Carmen Marcet, a leader in Philadelphia’s Latino community, said many are constantly following the news or in contact with family back home. She has worried about her family in Peru, where her mother finally got vaccinated but immunizations are occurring slowly.
”For the immigrant community in general, not only myself, but in general, you are always living in America physically, but mentally you are in two different points of the world,” she said.
As case numbers plunge, clinics here with plentiful vaccine supplies offer walk-in shots, and the last restrictions in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania melt away, the relatively rapid changes offer a newfound sense of security.
But for some countries, this spring has brought the worst period of the pandemic yet. In India, more than 2,000 people have died each day since April 20. With South America seeing the world’s highest new case rates, Argentina and Brazil have been averaging tens of thousands of new cases a day for weeks. A surge was filling hospital beds in Kabul, where China on Thursday sent vaccine doses. In Africa, cases have been soaring in some countries, as vaccines remain scarce.
For many, the disconnect between the desperation they hear on family phone calls and in the news from back home and the persuasion and prizes that have become necessary to entice Americans to get the shot is jarring.
Before the surge in India accelerated, Noor Shaik, a Thomas Jefferson University fourth-year medical student, was volunteering to help Philadelphians sign up for vaccine appointments. Many people she talked to in April said, “No, not interested,” she recalled. “As opposed to, basically the very next week, seeing and hearing about how people [in India] have to choose between breathing themselves or passing on the oxygen to their child.”
That dissonance was heartbreaking, said Shaik, 27, whose family came to Bensalem from Bangalore when she was 6. She talks to her grandmother weekly and began collecting medical supplies to send to India after hearing about the surge.
“I know that the people in India who are suffering from this,” Shaik said, “they would do anything at all to try to get the vaccine.”
Making a dent in inequity
This week, Shaik’s third shipment — masks, shields, gowns, and oxygen concentrators, making for a total of 4,000 pounds of supplies her family has sent in the last month — reached Turkey, and are due to land in India next week.
The medical student has filled her parents’ Bensalem home with thousands of pounds of masks, gowns, and even tracheostomy tubes. Most were donated by Jefferson, Penn Medicine, and SHAMS Clinic, a Northeast Philadelphia nonprofit that provides health and social services to underserved communities, and Shaik found a shipper who sent the first boxes free and gave her a deal on the others.
She has poured her energy into soliciting donors, coordinating shipments, tracking the supplies’ journey to India, and promoting the effort online in hopes of raising more funds, including money to ship a recently pledged donation of 10 tons of supplies, by the end of June.
The “small dent” made by her family’s effort has helped Shaik combat the sense of helplessness familiar to many with family overseas, and witnessing people’s generosity has provided a “small light” amid the despair wrought by the pandemic.
“That helplessness was something that’s been there for a while,” said Shaik, a Bensalem High School and Villanova University graduate. “So finally now, a year later, trying to be able to do something about it — we hope that we can make some small impact.”
Access to the vaccine varies wildly around the globe, highlighting inequity among the wealthiest countries and the rest of the world.
The Group of Seven nations — facing pressure to address the global vaccine supply as they gathered for an in-person summit in the United Kingdom — pledged Thursday to send one billion doses to other countries. President Joe Biden said the United States would provide 500 million of those doses.
The disparities are stark: The U.S. has administered at least one vaccination to 64% of adults. In Africa, the World Health Organization said Thursday, most nations would not be able to vaccinate 10% of their people by September, and 225 million more doses are needed.
“You see … how difficult it is for poor countries to deal with this pandemic and how much the world is still divided between the rich and the poor,” said Parrado, the Penn professor. “Even though there’s an oversupply [of vaccines] in the U.S., it doesn’t mean it’s going to get to Argentina or any of these countries anytime soon.”
Experts are also watching what happens with travel and migration, how frequently proof of vaccination will be required and in what form, and whether all vaccines will be accepted by all countries, he said. Within countries, varying abilities to access vaccines, earn a living, or stay home also compound inequity.
For instance, José Joaquín Mota, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia and is president of the Dominican Institute, said he’s concerned the Dominican Republic’s government-imposed curfews are hurting poor people who need to work on the streets in the evening.
He talks to his daughter, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and follows news reports from the capital, Santo Domingo, where ICU beds are reportedly filling up.
“It worries me that she’s there. It worries me that something happen, there won’t be a bed for her,” Mota said. “It worries me that I have uncles, nieces, nephews, brothers, and they are there. I mean, you wake up, you don’t know what could happen. You could be sick. It’s stressing, very stressing.”
The Dominican community in Philadelphia is still recovering from losses, too, while leaders work to persuade others to get vaccinated. The Dominican Institute is holding bimonthly clinics at a local church working with Philly Counts, Mota said, trying to protect immigrant and undocumented community members who might not speak English, have computer access, or trust vaccine providers outside their neighborhood.
“We worry about the situation,” Mota said. “We’ve been hit harder than other communities.”
Marcet, who writes for the city Spanish-language newspaper Impacto, also noted the inequity in reopening, saying that “everything is open” for wealthier Americans but that summer programs and other community initiatives that would support the city’s children post-pandemic are lacking.
» READ MORE: The Latino leaders Philly has lost to COVID-19
In Upper Darby, Siddique, too, organized vaccine clinics at Masjid Al Madinah, the mosque he cofounded. He’s relieved to hear his family in Bangladesh is starting to get vaccinated, too.
As he watches in fear from the other side of the world, he said his relatives in Bangladesh tell him each day that they are concerned about him, “alone in America.”
“They worry about me rather than them,” he said. To which he replies: “I’ll be OK. Just pray for each other.”
Staff writer Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.