Last June, when New York City was in lockdown and the United States was the global center of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was living in Brooklyn when my visa expired. After seven years in the U.S., I suddenly had to book an emergency repatriation flight to Kolkata, India, because, for the first time in my adult life, my country of citizenship was the only one that would take me.
It wasn't easy at all. India had declared a full lockdown on March 25, 2020; it officially expired on May 31, but it has continued in phases since then. After a 19-hour flight spent fully masked with no cabin crew walking the aisles, we needed three hours to get through baggage claim, because all the other passengers had to exit the airport before we were allowed to leave. We were ferried to our quarantine hotels in hired cars escorted by a police fleet. Once there, I spent two weeks in institutional quarantine at my own expense, unable to leave my room. Everyone I spoke to was terrified of me because, as one of the first Indians to travel from America post-Covid-19, they feared I might have brought the coronavirus with me.
Now, I feel like I'm back where I started: On Friday, there were 414,188 new Covid-19 cases in India and 42,847 in America. My friends and family from around the world have been messaging me to ask whether I'm OK instead of me asking them, and I don't really know what to say. I am lucky to be healthy and safe, but I am not OK. None of us are.
Since finishing quarantine last year, I have moved around India — from Kolkata to Mumbai to Bangalore — being careful but feeling hopeful that life would slowly go back to normal. In every city, I have participated in full lockdowns; unlike during my last few months in New York, during lockdown in India, people aren't allowed to step outside without valid medical reasons or without being able to verify their status as essential workers, and the government has enforced nighttime curfews to limit people's movement.
And still, over the last few weeks, my country has descended into chaos as Covid-19 cases have spiked to previously unimaginable levels. I am the last person in my family — each of us is in a different country — still awaiting vaccination, and I'm aware it's because of where I live.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was issuing guidelines for what activities vaccinated Americans can do unmasked, I was first in self-quarantine and then in lockdown for five weeks — and the case numbers keep rising. The U.S. brought its Covid-19 positivity rate down to 4.5 percent, but in the Indian state of Goa (a popular tourism destination) and my home state, West Bengal (where I first lived when I arrived here), quite literally every other person is testing positive right now.
On social media, I see my friends in America visiting art galleries, enjoying happy hours and planning (or even going on) vacations. The contrasts stagger me.
I'm watching a crisis unfold around me in India while I'm safely indoors, seeing it all happen on screens, wishing I could step outside and help without compromising my safety and knowing I cannot. It creates waves of trauma and despair that everyone here moves through every day, a mental fog that leaves us all feeling numb.
We may be survivors, but we're still in survival mode, wrestling with shame and survivor's guilt for every ambulance siren, every plea for oxygen and every WhatsApp message — knowing that the person in need could have been us and that it might still be us.
We feel troubled, and everyone knows people who have it worse, but we're at a loss for what to really do. It feels like there is no order or logic to what is happening — people who have been indoors for weeks report mysteriously testing positive — and so, to cope, we have to take it day by day.
We stay glued to our screens, scrolling through a never-ending feed of catastrophe and doing what we can to help others. They serve as windows into our shared disaster but also give us hope, as we see moments of human connection in which calls for help are answered by strangers and bear witness as people come together through art, volunteering and fundraising to save lives.
In a country of many contrasts, we may be facing the same crisis, but we are all experiencing different realities, which creates nuances in our perspectives, depending on our privilege and personal circumstances. There are important differences between the situations in different cities and states — each of which has its own lockdown rules and vaccine availability.
But somehow the variations in a huge country of more than a billion people have been flattened out beyond our borders; my friends and family overseas have one general understanding of what is happening from seeing video of funeral pyres and crowded hospitals. I've received messages from people I barely know, filled with pity and concern, who believe everyone around me is dying. But I don't want to be treated as a victim or have to carry their survivor's guilt along with my own.
Even as we face tragedy, life has been carrying on. People with privilege and access to the internet — like me — can still get deliveries and order takeout, work from home and do virtual workouts. It doesn't diminish the human cost of what is happening, but there is more to the picture than many people abroad seem to understand, even though many of them have gone through something like this themselves.
A post on social media that went viral in India and around the world reads: "Social distancing is a privilege. It means that you live in a house large enough to practice it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water. ... All of us who are practicing social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are." Although this may be true, it feels dismissive and not quite fair — having enough space to socially distance doesn't disqualify everyone's pain or mean we aren't worthy of empathy. All of us are navigating our own problems, and we can acknowledge our privileges while honoring what each of us is going through.
A year ago, India allowed me to travel back here from the U.S., but now, as 18 countries (including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada) are restricting entry to Indian travelers because of our Covid-19 infection rate — many for an indefinite period of time — I wonder how long the barriers to exit will last. If I eventually move to another country, will its people now also be scared of me because of where I've come from?
With the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans from East and Southeast Asia — which led to the #StopAsianHate movement — the South Asian diaspora is worried that we may become the next target, and organizations like the South Asian Journalists Association are working to prevent bias from affecting coverage of the Covid-19 variant emerging from this part of the world.
The past few weeks have been painful and uncertain, and the next few may be, as well. But despite everything, I've found hope in seeing the generosity and kindness online as people all over the world have mobilized to help people in India. It's a reminder that, although people in India may feel helpless right now — stuck at home, reading the news, making it through another day — we're not alone.