When Dr. Keshwar Ramkissoon returned home after receiving dozens of patients a couple of years ago, he’d go straight to his garage, change his clothing and immediately jump in the shower. His wife, Prarthna Ramkissoon, who also works with her husband at his electro-cardiology practice, recalled the trouble her husband went through to ensure COVID-19 couldn’t enter their home and infect his family.
Reflecting on the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the fear of losing a loved one, and the reality of mass deaths due to the virus were a reality, Ramkissoon wanted to ensure those who experienced loss during those years would never be forgotten.
On Sunday, Oct. 8, The Federation of Hindu Mandirs, in collaboration with the USA Pandits’ Parishad, hosted the second annual COVID Remembrance Memorial at the memorial tree located at Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park.
Last year, The Federation of Hindu Mandirs, working together with the city Parks Department and local civic and elected officials, plated a remembrance tree at the entrance of the park in recognition of the hundreds of city residents who lost their lives due to COVID-19.
“This tree is a symbol of life. In this world, we feel that nothing dies. Everything continues to exist in different forms,” explained Pandit Ram Hardowar, in his opening remarks. “… and that is the concept that every one of us continues on our life’s journey beyond giving up this body. And so we pray and that’s why we planted this tree. For this tree will be here autumn after autumn, hundreds of autumns will come, and this tree will continue to remind us that life is a continuous stream.”
Throughout the remembrance memorial ceremony, respected faith leaders expounded on the importance of remembering the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic and paying respects to the deceased. The congregation was joined by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and NYPD Chaplin Imam Tahir Kukiqi, who also shared their respects.
In his opening remarks, Imam Kukiqi acknowledged the Israel–Hamas conflict overseas and prayed for the end of bloodshed.
“In unity, we take away any kind of animosities and any kind of misconception or misunderstanding. As long as we know each other who we are and what we stand for, evil has no place amongst us. Whether that goes for humans or even viruses, love has such a strong cure for everything,” Imam Kukiqi said.
Richards recalled the early days of the pandemic and how many of the local institutions were able to support residents with food distributions and personal protective equipment in their time of need.
“Queens was the first county in the state to hit a million vaccinations and that was because of the partnership with many of you. Because your communities trust you,” Richards said. “We know that there’s always sometimes a mistrust between government and community, so we really lean on you and we definitely did lean on you at the height of those days to make sure that we can get as much assistance into every pocket of our borough as possible.”
Richards also recalled the fights for resources for communities in Queens, especially in getting PPE and testing sites. Additionally, he spoke on an allocated $ 3 million to upgrading Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park.
“You know, this tree planted here will provide a shade and a lot of shade one day to think of how those we last paid the ultimate sacrifice. And they will be all shade as we move forward, and continue to be our shade — reminded of many families who perhaps could not say goodbye.”
Those who were immediately affected by the grasp of COVID also had the chance to their their experiences. Harpreet Singh Toor, a community organizer and activist, recalled how hard it was to receive medical care during a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations pushed medical institutions to their limits — placing him in a serious medical crisis where an uncertainty of life was given.
Community Board 9 Chair Sherry Algredo shared how COVID-19 took away important people in her life.
“COVID also affected my family. I lost my 42-year-old brother-in-law who had no health issues, a father of kids, suddenly couldn’t breathe. When he went to the hospital, there wasn’t care for him. So he died in the hospital,” Algredo said. “When I lost my sister’s brother-in-law, I lost my best friend’s daughter, I lost my best friend, so COVID hit close to home.”
At the end of the remembrance ceremony, selected members of the crowd were asked to join Pandit Ram Hardowar in releasing several balloons, representative of the spirits who passed and the freeing of them. A wreath was also placed on the remembrance tree.