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The Personal Toll of India’s Pandemic

India Covid

Editor-in-Chief Marino Unger-Verna speaks with Indian students at King’s in the midst of a deadly resurgence in Covid-19 cases across the country.

After over a year of peaks and troughs, the United Kingdom seems to finally be recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. The current death rate per 100,000 people is hovering around 0.1%, and lockdown restrictions across the country are lifting on schedule. Pubs are filling with joyous revellers, workers are headed back to their offices, and students are on track to return to campuses for in-person teaching come September.

Across the world in India, however, things are not as simple. The country is caught in an unprecedented public health crisis. The Indian government is consistently reporting over 4,000 deaths and 400,000 new infections per day – figures experts and journalists believe are vastly underestimating the true scale of the emergency. Crematoriums are overflowing, with one centre in New Delhi having to burn bodies in its parking lot for lack of space.

The struggles of this past year have affected our mental health in ways that are difficult to quantify. King’s students from India in particular have been forced to grapple with an unabating stream of morbid news, often concerning their own close friends and family members. At the same time, they’ve been sitting exams, writing essays, and finalising dissertations. As one anonymous Indian student currently based in Delhi told Roar, this has proved a devastating combination: “It messed my entire life up. I have not submitted my dissertation; I’ve had to defer all my assignments to August, so now I’m graduating late. […] I think a lot of students in India have been really struggling to get their work done. […] At least from what my personal tutor told me, and I don’t know if this is a fact, ‘it looks like one-third of your batch is going to be graduating late.'”

While that would be enough to cause someone significant turmoil, it does not even begin to scratch the surface of the mental toll brought about by the crisis in India. The aforementioned student’s grandfather passed away following a Covid-19 diagnosis, and as they told Roar, “I haven’t processed anything because so many things happen every day, one after the other. Even the cremation – when my grandad passed away, I couldn’t go, only my mom and dad went and we were all on a video call.

“There’s a Hindu ceremony you do when someone dies […] and it just couldn’t happen. The body was covered the whole time because they’re still Covid carriers […] and there were men in PPE suits who did it. You were standing at a distance and they gave you a number. For example, we were number 27, and you couldn’t see the face of anyone. There were like twelve bodies and they’re burning section by section.

“You are number 27, that one in the distance is your grandad. […] It was awful, It’s so dystopian.”

“When I saw my grandad and the other ten bodies burning, I was like, ‘Is this real?’ Because it doesn’t feel real, and things keep happening. I feel really bad for a lot of Indian students, especially the younger students, who are going to have to start or continue uni with this backlog of things they haven’t processed. […] I see [Indian students in the UK] post one Covid resource or two resources and then in the next story they post they’re out for drinks. It’s so easy to distance yourself from this but it’s so traumatic when it’s happening. I have a British passport and my parents keep telling me to fuck off and go back. I haven’t gone back because, after being here, I don’t think I’d be able to go back there and just go out for drinks. I know how traumatic it is being here.”

As cases began surging in India and hospitals grew overwhelmed by demand, many Indians were forced to turn to social media for life-saving medical equipment and medicine. This was no different for the anonymous student: “It’s been honestly bizarre. The fact that I had to rely on Instagram for medical help… it doesn’t even feel real. It’s not something that should be happening and it doesn’t feel real to anyone. Every day I see almost everyone I follow posting ‘we need help with this, we need help with that’. It’s not like they’re posting it just to be a part; they’ve tried everything else, and then they post on social media because nothing else works.

“I got all my information [about my grandad] from social media; I got so many people who came out to help me, all their numbers. It’s really nice to see citizens helping each other […] but a lot of these numbers are crowded. People are posting Covid resources, but they don’t realise that a lot of the time they don’t work. I was calling 18 different numbers hour after hour; my boyfriend was calling, my best friends were calling, my sister… all of us were sitting and calling numbers, and half of them were busy or wouldn’t pick up or [were] switched off. […] Those numbers, they’re valid for three or four minutes. The need is so much more than the actual resources we have. […] We had to wait for someone to die [to get a hospital bed].

“After my grandad died, his driver got Covid and it was so much harder to get anything for him. My entire family tried, but I think just the disparity because he’s not upper caste, he’s a driver, was ridiculous. We called ambulances and said it was an emergency, and as soon as they heard that they hung up – all seven of them. My dad was crying on the phone, saying ‘somebody is going to die, you have to help’, and nobody helped. No one came, and then he just stopped breathing. And it was awful because his nine-year-old daughter lives with him, and she also has Covid right now.

“We were on video call and we could see her shaking his body, saying ‘wake up, wake up’.”

“It was awful. And then they wouldn’t cremate him [because he didn’t have a Covid-positive test yet]. They had to put him in a freezer in his house while his daughter was there.”

7,000 miles away in London, Indian students at King’s separated from their families are watching all of this through their screens – calling loved ones, reading news stories, hearing about more and more passings via Facebook and Instagram. As an Indian finalist at King’s told Roar, they haven’t been able to process this crisis either: “I have had three members of my family pass away from Covid-19. Every day that you go onto social media and see a photograph that your friend had posted with anyone in their family and it doesn’t have the ‘Happy Birthday’ sticker, you can assume that they have passed away too.

“Some of my friends with deaths in their family have been able to go over to meet their extended families in London. I don’t have much family here and have to rely on myself to keep sane. Sure, I have friends that would be there for me but they have lost family too. I have resorted to not feeling anything or being emotionless throughout all of this because it feels like a good way to cope, at least right now.

“Death now feels so run of the mill and mundane because I’m so far away, there’s nothing I can do. For me it’s just tapping through social media and every story is a memorial. There isn’t a single person I know who hasn’t lost someone.”

Sayali, another King’s finalist from India, echoed these sentiments: “Every week I would talk to my mom, she would tell me ‘this person we know got Covid’ or ‘this person who has Covid hasn’t found [hospital] beds’ or ‘someone has died’. It was quite overwhelming for me because I was in the middle of writing my final essays and my dissertation.

“Obviously I’m away from home, and the whole added pressure of the fact that people I know are dying is just difficult to digest. […] I’m constantly scared for my mom’s safety. I’ve heard of people from King’s back home who have fully self-isolated back home the whole time, and their family got Covid even though they didn’t really go out that much. That kind of scares me; my mom doesn’t go out anymore, so what if somehow she randomly catches it? […] I’ve definitely spent anxious nights worrying about that.”

The trauma this pandemic is causing students both at home and in London will be difficult to measure and even more difficult to address once the pandemic subsides. How many times will these students have to force themselves to ignore the deaths of their friends and family just to complete their degrees, or even just to keep themselves sane another day? As the anonymous student in London told us, “feeling nothing feels a lot better than feeling something right now”.

Whether this pandemic ends a day or a year from now, we will need to address the effects it has had on the mental health of those who have suffered most. We will need to be compassionate and understanding; we will need to understand that, as many of us were enjoying beers at the pub with friends, some of our fellow students were desperately searching for medical aid or sitting in their rooms waiting for the next inevitable round of bad news. This pandemic has taken different tolls on each of us. For some, they may linger long after the last strain of Covid-19 has disappeared.

We have compiled a list of resources for Covid-19-related aid in India, and will continue to update it as the situation develops. Multiple societies at King’s have started a relief fundraiser for the Covid-19 crisis in India, which can be found here.

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