Richa Bajaj, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Georgia, hasn’t been home to see her family in India since before the pandemic began.
She said she’s been “dying inside” because she wishes she could’ve been there with them, even though there’s nothing she could have done to help. Without the comfort of being around her friends and family, she says she turns to work or distraction to avoid the persistent worry that her loved ones may be infected.
Like Bajaj, many Indian and Indian American students at UGA live in Athens while their families and friends try to avoid the worst of the coronavirus spike across India.
After a drop-off in new COVID-19 cases in September, the pandemic has taken hold in India. Since March 2021, incidence of new cases has jumped dramatically, with a seven-day average of 371,041 cases as of May 1.
Even with rollout of the Covexin, Covishield, and Sputnik V vaccines approved in India, the risk of infection while doing daily activities like running errands is still high.
Ameya Sawadkar, a fourth-year doctoral student in the College of Education, wants to visit his family in Pune, India, but he knows that it wouldn’t be practical.
“Even if I go back I’ll have to quarantine myself for 14 days at least, which means I just go back, stay alone for 14 days and get hardly a week with my family,” Sawadkar said. “Then after that, there's no guarantee that they will not stop all ongoing travel because of the current situation. So, basically, I’m stuck here and all I can do is check on people over the phone or email.”
Starting on May 4, the Biden Administration will be restricting travel from India on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tryphena Jeyakumar, a freshman chemistry major at UGA, has been trying not to dwell on her worries about her extended family in India, but her family recently found out that her aunt has COVID-19. Jeyakumar’s aunt was the primary caretaker of her grandmother, who is at high risk due to her age and health, so now no one is safely available to care for her.
The health infrastructure in India has been stressed during this surge in infections, with demand for oxygen tanks, hospital beds and delivery services exceeding the supply.
Sawadkar said the central government of India, as well as many state governments, have been responding poorly to increased need for medical supplies and facilities.
Additionally, the spike in new cases is happening during election season. Despite increased transmission of the coronavirus, including mutant strains, political candidates are continuing to hold rallies to garner support across states like West Bengal, where the seven-day average for new cases is 16,831 as of May 1.
With mutations in the virus possibly causing increased infection and mortality rates, as well as the changes in travel and lockdown orders and the shortages in critical supplies, families are constantly receiving new information.
“Apart from being scared, it's more confused because everybody's like, ‘We don't know what to do, how to deal with it,’ because in every place there is somebody nearby you who is affected,” Bajaj said.
Lack of financial assistance
While legislation has passed for Americans to receive multiple rounds of stimulus checks to aid the economy, no widespread financial assistance for individuals has been administered in India.
Sawadkar characterized India as a country with many small businesses, and without the government’s help to compensate for the financial losses of remaining closed due to the public health crisis, people continue to leave their homes to work.
In Pune, a city in the state of Maharashtra, where Sawadkar’s family lives, the state government has recently imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., he said. Changes like these may be superficial attempts to reign in the pandemic, because people are still going to need to go to work between restricted times, Sawadkar said.
Vaccination efforts in India may also be stunted due to mistrust of the vaccine, difficulty getting appointments due to the overwhelmed health care system and the risk of catching COVID-19 while at a vaccination site.
India is responsible for the production of about 60% of the world’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines, but the country lacks the raw materials needed to create enough vaccines for its population of 1.36 billion.
The Biden Administration has begun the process of sending over $100 million worth of supplies to India, including oxygen generation units and concentrators, rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests and enough vaccine supplies to manufacture 20 million doses.
“[U.S. assistance] is pretty good and encouraging, and we're hoping that these things might cause some kind of reduction in the number of cases and hopefully we can get back to … maybe closer to a little bit normal,” Bajaj said.
By current projections, the peak of this surge of infections should have occurred sometime in late April, with about 1,018,000 total deaths projected in India by Aug. 1.
Sawadkar and Bajaj are the president and vice president, respectively, of the Indian Student Association. They said fellow Indian and Indian American students share information about how they can support efforts in India, like donating money for the purchase of oxygen tanks.
The Indian Student Association holds a support group every other Wednesday where students can discuss the mental stress that may come from not being with their family during this difficult time. Students also have more informal conversations where they discuss more personal issues like being an immigrant during the pandemic.
Bajaj said it’s a struggle to keep incoming UGA students from India informed about attending UGA because many U.S. embassies in India are shut down as a health precaution. She hopes new students don’t have to defer their admission, but it depends on the circumstances in India and the U.S. in the coming months.
“I think the loss definitely is irreplaceable,” Bajaj said. “I'm seeing everyday the number of deaths coming up. No amount of words could heal somebody losing their loved one. I can only say stay strong.”