When Abu Saleh Musa Patoary got his COVID-19 vaccine, just like many others around the nation, he was excited — but he also felt slightly guilty.
Patoary, a third-year physics doctoral student at the University of Maryland, is an international student from India. As he and other individuals around the United States ease up a bit on COVID-19 precautions — as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance for fully-vaccinated people — he thinks of his loved ones in India who are far from OK, grappling with a dire situation.
Patoary is not alone. India’s cases and deaths are skyrocketing, partially because of a new variant, and many have been left without hospital beds and oxygen tanks. On Wednesday, the country recorded over 300,000 new cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 200,000 deaths. In cities where the death rate is climbing faster and faster, makeshift funeral pyres burn day and night.
Some students at this university are coping with the impacts this crisis has had on their loved ones abroad.
“My whole family is in India, except me,” Patoary said.
One of Patoary’s relatives in India got her first dose of the vaccine, he said, but hasn’t been able to schedule a second dose. It’s a constant state of anxiety for them, he said, especially when there aren’t many vaccines available.
The issue isn’t unique to Patoary’s family members. India is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of vaccines. Even though all adults now are eligible to get a shot, only 2 percent of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated so far. Many localities face vaccine shortages.
Earlier this week, United States officials announced that they would send raw materials for vaccines to India, along with oxygen and medical supplies. But criticism that they should be doing more continues.
“As production exceeds the demand in the US, those vaccines should definitely be going to other countries … not necessarily countries in Europe or other developed countries that aren’t doing too badly, but especially countries like India,” said Kunal Mehta, a sophomore computer science major.
Like Patoary, Mehta has family in India. His mom’s sisters live in Karnataka, a state in southern India where the positivity rate is over 20 percent. One of his mother’s sisters currently has COVID-19, as does her family, Mehta said. Although they are doing OK, the situation has led Mehta to reflect on the privilege of getting vaccinated and seeing a decline in cases in the U.S.
“It’s almost like a feeling of helplessness,” he said. “I’m still thankful to be here … but it’s like, what did I do to deserve it over anyone else?”
Ishaan Kapur, a sophomore accounting and finance major, feels some of the same helplessness. His grandfather, aunt and great-aunt live in Delhi, and his grandfather tested positive for the virus a few weeks ago, despite getting his first dose of the vaccine. He was asymptomatic and recovered fully, but Kapur still worried about his safety.
“I lost my grandmother two years ago. And so he’s the only kind of tie that I have left of a grandparent living in India, so I was really scared that something would happen,” Kapur said.
In February, India seemed to experience some good fortune — the case and death rates went down, especially in urban areas. During that time, Kapur said his family started leaving the house again to shop for groceries and get coffee, one of his grandfather’s favorite pastimes. But now, he hears about how they are facing restrictions once again.
“It was kind of disappointing, I think, for my grandfather to have to move everything back inside after kind of getting that piece of freedom,” he said.
For those whose families haven’t contracted the virus, there’s some relief — but everyday life is still difficult.
Simran Bhattacharyya’s mother, brother and grandmother live in Assam, a state in northern India. Bhattacharyya, a senior psychology major, has not seen them since before the pandemic started. She hoped to go visit this summer, but because of the surge in cases, she’s not sure when she can make the trip. Her loved ones have also gotten their first dose of the vaccine, but they’re still “scared and anxious,” she said.
Bhattacharyya’s mom is a single mom and she works as a teacher to provide for her family. The surge in cases has forced her mom to revert to teaching on Zoom, even though not all her students have internet access, and navigating technology has proved to be an added stressor, Bhattacharyya said.
“I like the fact that it’s getting better here because then I can at least distract myself from everything that’s going back home … but I do find it really annoying and frustrating for my mom,” she said. “I feel really bad that she has to make ends meet and go through this again.”
There are also concerns of how close-knit relationships and prevalence of domestic jobs could exacerbate the pandemic. People in India often rely on each other for help around the house, Patoary said, making day-to-day tasks especially hard in a time of isolation and fear.
“I guess here people are more self-independent… But in India, people don’t do that, people call someone who does that work,” he said. “Now, the problem is that [if] something is broken, something is not working, you cannot really find any people who want to come.”
This community interdependence is one of the factors that has left vulnerable populations especially hard-hit by the pandemic surge in India. Unofficial estimates say up to 50 million people in India are employed in the domestic help industry, and earn a living by working as maids or other domestic positions. Now these and other workers with unstable jobs are facing crises on both an economic and health front.
Such issues have spurred criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian government, which allowed massive superspreader gatherings to continue during Kumbh Mela — a Hindu religious festival — and election rallies.
“It’s kind of the same thing that happened here when Trump was holding his rallies for the election and COVID cases were spiking,” Kapur said. “They were doing so well, and then political ambition always comes in and kind of ruined everything.”
Patoary said the government has taken to censorship on social media, too. Last month, a man in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh sent out a tweet saying he could not find oxygen for his dying grandfather. He was charged with spreading misinformation and could be jailed, Patoary said.
The crisis hasn’t ceased at India’s borders, either.
Jwoyal Ranjit, a sophomore aerospace engineering major, has family in Nepal, which shares an open border with India. Nepal is now facing a similar surge in cases and deaths.
In Nepal, the mother of a close family friend of Ranjit recently contracted the virus.
“I guess it was so bad that she had to be hospitalized and she was just barely able to find a hospital bed — that’s how so bad it is there,” Ranjit said.
Still, he is thankful that he and his family have been OK, which is not something everyone can say, he said.
As others also continue to balance their gratitude and worry, they realize that things won’t be fine for some more time, but hope that with aid, progress is around the corner. They look forward to the day they can reunite with their friends and family without fear.
“I’m hoping that in the coming months, hopefully by the end of the summer… travel can open back up so we can go see our families and relive life like it was before the pandemic,” Kapur said.
This story’s excerpt has been updated.