HAWKE'S BAY TODAY
Napier family in rural India await news of repatriation
Former Tamatea High School student Ana Wilkinson-Gee, husband Daniel and two of their three children are among the latest surge of New Zealanders waiting nervously for repatriation flights to bring them home during the Covid-19 crisis.
Ana and her family moved to rural India more than 11years ago where she runs Holi Boli, an ethical women's clothing manufacturer and fashion brand that empowers women in rural India through sewing training and safe and dignified employment.
Through the sewing class programme, Ana has trained more than 170 in dressmaking and pattern making.
"Most women come to learn sewing so that they can sew from home for their family members or earn money by sewing for others in the village, or get jobs in local tailor shops. Three have gone on to start their own sewing classes to empower more women in their villages," Ana says.
The family of four — eldest son Jehoash has been attending high school in Napier — lives in the small village of Bhalupali, with a population of around 2000 and a 12-hour train journey south-west of Kolkata.
Ana says they are the only foreigners in the village and the nearby city of Sambalpur, with a population of about 300,000. Before lockdown, her children attended an English-speaking school in the city with about 3000 others.
"They are the only foreign kids in the whole school, so it is very easy to see them at pick-up time with their blonde heads bobbing along among a sea of black hair."
Ana says they first started hearing about Covid-19 in early March and the country went into lockdown on Sunday, March 23.
"The Prime Minister addressed the nation on TV and advised that a 21-day total lockdown would take effect that midnight. On the 21st day — April 14 — another address announced the lockdown was extended until May 3."
She says unlike New Zealand, people are not allowed out for exercise, walks or teddy bear hunts during the India lockdown.
"All public transport services — auto rickshaws, taxis, buses, trains and planes — have stopped, although they have tried to keep transport moving for essential services like hospitals and food distribution chains. Apart from a few people, who are being called "covidiots", most people are keeping the rules and the police are vigilant on catching the rule breakers."
Ana says life in the 40-degree heat is very quiet and sleepy.
"It's like a public holiday. There's none of the usual road sounds as we are not allowed private vehicles on the road and the auto rickshaws and buses are banned. When they are all going they toot a lot, so it is very quiet without all that traffic noise. The long rumblings from trains passing in the distance is also missing."
A 12-noon curfew has been imposed, with grocery shopping and medical trips permitted.
Ana says police are blocking the roads and stopping people to check why they are out and about. People are only allowed to walk to the markets. Many cars and motorbikes have been impounded by the local police when people have broken the rules without the necessary permission.
She says people are staying home and trying to survive the summer's heat by sleeping the afternoons away and enjoying the slight coolness — late 20s — of the mornings and late evenings.
"It's usually come down to 30 degrees by 9pm."
Ana says with most businesses closed, unemployment has increased, with no government financial assistance for most people or local businesses to pay their staff.
"So there is a big financial burden and many village people are feeling nervous about getting food on their tables."
Ana says like most other businesses in India, their sewing production house is closed but their online retail store is still open.
"We have advised our customers their orders are still very welcome as it helps us to keep paying our staff during this time. Parcels will be posted once the world has healed somewhat and we all emerge.
"We are very thankful to New Zealand online store Tonic & Cloth who we manufacture for. As they are now an approved essential business, New Zealanders can purchase Holi Boli safely in their homes from www.tonicandcloth.co.nz ."
For now, Ana feels her family would be safer in New Zealand so has started the repatriation process, which due to their rural location is looking unlikely to be successful.
"It is a difficult time to be a foreigner anywhere right now. Family and friends in New Zealand are very anxious about us. For the children's safety and wellbeing it feels the right thing to do considering the extreme circumstances."
She says it has been 35 days since her children were last outdoors, and her husband was taken late one night by an entourage of health workers and police to the local hospital for testing, the exercise repeated a fortnight later.
"All of it was routine testing. I found myself frightened and alone at this time in my house not knowing where he was being taken to and if he would return. He was tested and delivered home and we waited 10 long days for the result, which was negative. He said that the doctors were all very professional and doing a good a job.
"With such uncertainty and unprecedented situations, it is very difficult to predict what will happen and how people will react when we have fatalities in our area."
Ana says they will be very sad to leave their staff but for the sake of safety, feels it is the responsible choice, being a foreigner and a parent.
"I have also become aware of how stressful it is for our friends and the local authorities to have a foreign family staying here at this time and them having to consider our safety.
As soon as we heard about the possibility of flights being initiated by Winston Peters, we immediately applied for repatriation, as it is only with government assistance that we would be able to move from our house and get to an airport."
She is hoping to expand the Holi Boli profile when back in New Zealand and "life starts to return to normal again".
"It's a wonderful and awesome place. It will always be part of who I am, no matter where I am based. Technology makes doing work anywhere possible, and our efforts to make the business and women's empowerment keep running without us needing to be here have always been an important part of our succession plan."
Ana acknowledges the "great job" the Indian government has done in this pandemic.
"India was one of the first countries to lock down. With such a big population and fewer hospitals and Covid tests, it purchased some much-needed time to ready itself by doing so. I deeply believe that the Indian government understood India's needs in this pandemic and immediately recognised what it needed to do to protect its massive population.
Managing a country of 1.3 billion people is not easy. We salute the Indian essential services who are at the coal face of this pandemic."