Memorialising the victims of COVID-19 infection in NYC

Dear Editor,
Under a cloudy sky and with a soft cool breeze caressing the trees that still have on most of their green and somewhat warped leaves, the famous Smokey Park of Richmond Hill, New York City, was enlivened by an historic moment when a special tree was planted on the southern side of the Park in tribute to those who have fallen to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as for those who have suffered as a result of this deadly virus. A crowd of about 100 people representing several Mandirs, the Gurdwara, NYGM, and other NGOs of NYC watched with intensity as the tree was planted and blessed with appropriate mantras and the sprinkling of flowers at its roots. To complete that ritual, each member of the crowd was invited to throw a handful of dirt onto the root of the tree.
Acharya Ram Hardowar, Spiritual Leader of the Surya Narayan Mandir and President of the Federation of Hindu Mandirs (FHM) said that a plaque would be placed at the side of the tree to remind visitors of its symbolic nature. He then noted: “We honour and cherish the 71,000 New Yorkers who were casualties of COVID-19 ….and we express our community’s gratitude to the countless healthcare and frontline workers who fought gallantly to save lives and putting their own lives on the line.” The Acharya also indicated that there were 1.05 million COVID-19 deaths in the USA and 6.53 million worldwide as of November 22, 2022. Dr Parmeshwar Mohabir spoke emotionally about his sister’s COVID-19 infection and on his advice for his sister to take the experimental monoclonal treatment, and it worked. His sister survived. Dr Mohabir also indicated that Acharya Ram Hardowar was also infected with COVID-19 virus but survived.
Why was a tree planted to memorialise the fallen COVID-19 victims? According to Acharya Pt Ram Hardowar, a tree represents life, it represents growth, it represents prosperity, it represents food for consumption (a tree does not eat its own fruits), it represents longevity, and it gives off oxygen to sustain human and other forms of life. The idea of planting a tree also has its origin in Nobel Laurette Rabindranauth Tagore’s philosophy; “When anyone plants a tree, he/she will not necessarily take shade from or benefit from it, but it would benefit others.” This is the embodiment of compassion. Acharya Ram said that they plan to conduct an annual visitation to the site of the tree which symbolises healing and a new path ahead.
The programme’s Chair, Dr Sanjay Ramkissoon delivered an eloquent speech in which he stated that it was a bitter-sweet day for him and others because “we are here to commemorate and reflect upon the lives lost, the pain, the suffering, the anxiety, and the wrath that COVID-19 infection has inflicted upon us. Who would have imagined a virus with no brain, no spine, and no thinking has the power to cripple the world?” Dr Sanjay continued; “during the pandemic, there was chaos at home, at hospitals, and at funeral homes…….the frontline workers put their fears behind them and rose to the challenge.” He also noted that the Surya Narayan Mandir organised face masks, hot meals, grocery, gloves, face shields, and sanitisers for distribution to all communities. They also joined with other mandirs in donating over 125 pints of blood for patients infected with COVID-19. Mr Vishnu Mahadeo was also praised for his efforts in distributing regularly, COVID-19 protective gear as well as organising food hampers. A few political leaders including Assemblyman David Weprin, District Leader Richard David, and Community Board 9 Chair, Ms Sherry Algredo, were part of the proceedings. Mr Weprin had just lost his mother but still found the occasion too important to miss, and he praised the community for how they reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that he is proud to represent them in the NYS Assembly. Richard David said that Richmond Hill (zip codes 11418 and 11419) had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in NYC at one period. He also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Guyanese sought refuge in Smokey Park, and the tree will be there to offer some form of relief.

Words of comfort for families who lost loved ones as well as those persons who were afflicted with the COVID-19 virus were delivered by Pastor Matthew Singh, Acharya Ram Hardowar, Guru Hagbir Singh, and Pt Prakash Persaud. They all pleaded for unity and for reaching out across race boundaries. Pt Prakash Persaud also highlighted the need to focus on the state of mental illness within our community. The vote of thanks was given by Mr Doodnauth Dasrat, who expressed gratitude to the NYC Parks Department, the USA Pandits’ Parishad, the FHM, the Desi Society, all the other participating organisations, and the attendees. It was a momentous event. It is a visionary project! And it was a wonderful day for the Guyanese community in New York!

Dr Tara Singh