As everyone keeping up with the media lately will be aware, the current situation in India is dire. At the beginning of the pandemic, India was doing relatively well, with rising cases under control and recovery rates relatively stable. India was scheduled to send millions of doses of vaccines to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, approximately ⅓ of the population in the world’s poorest countries was relying on India to deliver their vaccines.1 Now, India itself is in calamity, with over 300,000 cases being reported daily – and many experts believe this number is a significant undercount. There is a shortage of oxygen, ventilators, and hospital space, to the extent where parking lots are now being used as mass cremation sites.2 Reading this news and seeing these photos is, of course, troublesome to everyone. Watching all of this unfold as an Indian-American immigrant, though, has been especially taxing.
Nearly all of my family members except for my parents and brother are back home in India. Being so far away hasn’t been easy over the past two decades. We’ve missed so many important family occasions – births, birthdays, weddings, and funerals – and we’ve learned to be content with our virtual presence instead. For as far back as I can remember, our Saturday and Sunday mornings have consisted of back-to-back calls with all of our loved ones, and these weekend hours are how I feel connected to aunts and uncles I’ve only physically met a handful of times throughout my life. In the back of our heads, my brother and I constantly count down until the day (often years away) we’ll be able to see our grandparents again. Such are the natural nuances of immigrant life, but we’ve grown used to them and found the beauty in them. A life of physical distance but emotional connection is all we’ve ever known. But being so far away has never felt harder than it does right now. To be a non-residential Indian right now is to be stuck between two worlds: an optimistic post-pandemic America and a downward-spiraling India. And as we Americans get ready for some semblance of normalcy this summer, I watch from afar as the pandemic ravages my native country.
The privilege I hold here is something the majority of India’s population can only imagine. The precautions that are most effective against COVID-19 simply do not work for many Indian people. I know multiple family members and neighbors who live in joint family structures of up to fifteen people in one apartment. When someone in their households contracts the virus, there just isn’t enough space to properly quarantine and maintain a safe distance. I FaceTimed my cousin last week, who is trying her best to quarantine in her one-bedroom apartment, but of course her two-year-old daughter doesn’t understand and cries to be with her mother all day. At the beginning of the pandemic, I reprimanded my uncles for leaving the home to go to their factories for work. I then realized that work from home is a privilege my parents enjoy in their corporate America careers. For India’s working class in manual jobs, telecommuting is simply not an option. Staying home is surely optimal for public health reasons, but many Indians cannot afford to entirely shut down their businesses – their livelihoods – for over a year now when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay. From my home in the Massachusetts suburbs, I feel an intense sense of guilt. I’m sitting here writing this piece, raising funds, and sharing posts for awareness on social media. But I don’t have to live through what my people in India are experiencing, and somehow, that feels wrong.
More than anything, the juxtaposition between America and India right now underscores the disparity between the developed and developing world. While we Americans should certainly rejoice in our gradual recovery and look forward to this summer, we must also remember that in today’s global world of travel and migration, no country is safe until all of them are. As of last week, Latin America, too, is seeing a dangerous turn for the worse with rising COVID-19 cases and deaths. Countries certainly have the obligation to look after their own residents first, but overcoming this pandemic around the world will require a global effort. If the international community does not recognize this soon, the current state of India could become the reality in other countries, too.
This morning I woke up, and in a still half-asleep daze, I scrolled through my multiple new messages. In my text messages I saw a conversation with my friend about a summer trip we’re planning. I saw an update about lifted COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts. I saw a confirmation for my second vaccine appointment coming up.
I opened WhatsApp to a whole new reality. I saw a good morning message from my grandmother, who hasn’t taken her daily walk at the park in months and is learning to communicate via technology instead. I saw a forwarded prayer from my aunt, who wonders if it’s even safe to leave her home for her vaccination appointment. I saw a message from my uncle, who I was looking forward to welcoming in America for the very first time this summer.
I am thankful that my loved ones are safe. Yet, I carry a deep fear wondering not when, but if, the rest of my native land and our people will be. The pain has never felt so real, as I sit here miles away and worlds apart.
Roma Gujarathi is a second-year student at BC Law. Reach her at email@example.com.
Featured image: During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India, a mass lamp lighting event on 5 April 2020.