My American classmates graduated in cap and gown. In India, I graduated during a COVID crisis.
Bangalore, INDIA — Since the pandemic hit last year, I have graduated twice from Arizona State University. I am from India, where my family still lives. When I completed my bachelor’s degree last May, India was in total lockdown and had closed its borders, so I did not know when I would see my family next. I was in Phoenix at that time and it was scary to see India rush to close a nation that was not prepared for a lockdown.
I worried about my family and hoped they had enough food and essentials to sustain themselves because all stores were shut down, roads were closed, and no movement was allowed. I felt the panic and uncertainty over video calls and news updates. But as India experienced a low fatality rate, that fear thankfully did not last too long.
This year, I finished my Master’s degree, and I hoped things would be different. And they are. My graduating friends in Phoenix got to walk across the stage — something we could not do last year — in a scaled-down celebration. They were dressed in their caps and gowns and no masks, as all of them were fully vaccinated and rejoiced together. I graduated too, but all I could do was scroll through their pictures and double tap to like them and show my love.
I am home in India now, and I am so thankful to be with my family. But as we celebrate my graduation here this time around, we are in lockdown again.
The forgotten pandemic
In India, the virus is claiming too many lives, crematoriums are overflowing with bodies and loved ones are unable to say goodbye; people who are sick can’t get the care they need; mental health is compromised; and our frontline heroes are bearing the brunt of a collapsing health care system.
It’s scary to be here now. And the saddest part is that it didn’t have to be this way.
I flew back to India in December 2020 and finished my last semester here. Restaurants were opening up, masks were mostly a suggestion, big weddings with a thousand or more in attendance were in full swing, people flocked on vacations to beaches, movie theaters were back, and vaccinations would soon begin slowly rolling out.
We weren’t out of the woods completely, though. I was still scared to go out because I did not want to get my loved ones sick. I would see videos of people packed in clubs and did not think we were ready for that yet, but it looked like normalcy was around the corner.
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I was so excited for the summer because I thought it would finally be safe to go around the city, meet friends and family and live my best life before my “adulting” chapter began and I would return to the United States.
But COVID had other plans for my country. Large religious and political events gathered hundreds of thousands of people. People had forgotten that we were still in a pandemic. We dug our own grave, and it was time to lay in it.
Our second wave is here
Over the span of a couple of days last month, my Instagram feed went from posts about people getting together and going out, to desperate requests for hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, plasma donations, medicines, breast milk for newborn babies who have lost their moms to COVID, and home-cooked meals for patients.
People have come together to crowdsource resources and aggregate help on social media and it’s heartening to see how communities have banded together to overcome this crisis. Two of my friends hosted fundraisers for their birthdays, asking people to donate to organizations to help save lives.
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Our second wave is here. The lockdown in Bangalore, the city I live in, is a little different than last year’s because essential stores are open from 6-10 a.m., so we don’t have to hoard supplies. But after that, roads are closed and only delivery drivers and essential personnel are on the streets.
My heart aches. Everyone knows someone or knows of someone who is sick, who is struggling, or has passed away. Every conversation invariably lands on someone sharing a tragic story and it’s heartbreaking.
I am constantly on edge about the next call or text being about someone I love falling sick or losing them.
On a single day, I heard about the deaths of an old neighbor, my dad’s colleague, and my friend’s father’s best friend who was a doctor. Digesting the news, scrolling through social media, and even talking about it are draining.
And we don’t know how long this will go on.
I am supposed to travel back to the U.S. in June to start my job, but there are few flights out of India now, and I don’t know how things will be by then.
But even with that uncertainty and just how frightening the situation is here, there is nowhere else I would rather be right now. I’m scared, but at least I am safe with my family and blessed to have everything we need right here.
And now, all I can do is hope and wish on every star in the sky that this country heals and we come out of this stronger, healthier, more united, more grateful, and less complacent going forward.
Mythili Gubbi is a broadcast journalist, and the author of a young adult fiction novel called “Kiara’s Tiara.” She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, Arizona.