‘Indian consulate staff were incredible in the pandemic’

RITU JHA

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and India and the US suspended flights, Sumati Saksena Rao, consul, community affairs, information & culture & visa at the Indian consulate in San Francisco, was reminded of her first posting outside India, which was to Nepal when the earthquake hit the Himalayan country.

I could make out how it is going to be,” Rao told indica News. “The experiences were different but it gave the sense of urgency, like in Nepal.”

Similarly, in San Francisco the most challenging part was when the Indian government restarted flights to the US as part of the Vande Bharat mission, said Rao.

We’re all working from home and what was overwhelming was that we were getting about 200 to 300 emails every day,” said Rao. “The day the first flight was announced, I literally worked around the clock… I remember from 7:30am till about 11 or 11:30am the next day.

I was getting a lot of emails. Sometimes, people want to try two different email addresses. So, we had to make sure the responses were coordinated. So you have to tell your staff to train them, what are the government of India’s orders, what is going to happen next, so that people were reassured and didn’t panic.”

It was a challenge for all but I must give credit to all the boys and girls in our office in San Francisco,” Rao said, “The consulate staff worked tirelessly. Nobody during that time ever asked what about my Saturday, Sunday; they were just there. I don’t have words to express how incredible they were. The true character of a person shows during the time of crisis and they were amazing.”

When the flights started, there was a huge rush.

Usually, what happens is when people go to India, they don’t come to you unless there’s some visa issue. But this was completely different. This was the consulate deciding who will go. So initially there was a lottery system. The software was designed, people uploaded the information and you know the reasons for why they were traveling and based on their emergency, then the names were drawn in a lottery.

The desperation was huge and it was very difficult to decide whose emergency is more and whose could wait,” Rao said. “That always was the toughest job. We had to convince people that just wait for tomorrow there’s another flight tomorrow if you just wait for one more day we will try and accommodate with the next flight. But because everyone was in such a state of panic that they were not willing to even wait for 24 hours for the next flight to go.

So, yeah, that was a little bit of stress, but again we had so much support from our colleagues. We were getting guidelines from the embassy as well as the government of India,” she said.

The night the first flight was going, the people were going to different states and each state had its own quarantine requirements and each state needed to know how many people were coming in because they had to make arrangements,” she said.

There were cases where somebody wanted different kinds of medicine and somebody wanted to refer to a doctor or somebody wanted places to stay. There were cases of serious medical conditions,” she said.

Rao thanked the Indian-American community organizations. “They’re so vibrant, so connected, so passionate about India.”

Rao will soon would be going back to India as her three-year stint in the US is about to end. She joined the San Francisco consulate on August 6, 2018.

I think the farther you travel away from your country, the more you learn things about yourself as well as to what is right. So that way it has been a very interesting journey,” she said.