For the past few weeks Veeksha Madhu ’22 has been promoting her fundraiser to raise money for those affected by COVID in India, advocating for more support for South Asian students at Wellesley and dealing with the loss of relatives a continent away. All this has left her physically and mentally exhausted, as the spike in COVID-19 cases in India continues to rise.
“I wish I wasn’t taking on the burden while having to deal with loss,” Madhu said.
While India was applauded in early February for its record low case numbers, in recent weeks its infection rate has shot up. In March, India’s Health Ministry announced it had detected around 770 new variants spreading across the country. Months later, the death toll continues to mount. In recent days, the government has reported more than 300,000 new daily infections and 274,000 deaths, though many estimate the real numbers of both being as much as 10 times higher.
Concurrently, the government has censored local journalists and residents who have been posting about the crisis. According to Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, as of April 29, the Indian government has blocked 52 Twitter accounts from tweeting. Many of these tweets include people looking for oxygen and hospital beds.
“There are more dead bodies coming in [to the hospitals] than real patients,” Ayyub said.
Wellesley students with family abroad
For Madhu, this is personal. Her mother’s entire extended family lives in India. Although her mother spent time in India earlier this year helping Madhu’s relatives navigate the crisis, once cases began to rise, she had to evacuate the country.
“The situation was already so helpless, but when she left [my family] kind of lost all hope,” Madhu said.
Nivedita Nambrath ’23 and Arundhati Chandrasekhar ’24 also have family in India. One of the most difficult aspects of the crisis for Nambrath has been watching it unfold from across the world. Nambrath feels helpless watching all the suffering and fear without knowing what to do.
“I’m still trying to figure out how exactly to deal with this. It’s just so far away. Here it’s almost like things are going back to normal, vaccines are being rolled out and people don’t have to wear masks anymore,” Nambrath said. “It’s just a stark disparity between the world I live in and this other world that I’m just hearing about through news and family.”
Women and Gender Studies and Sociology Professor Smith Radhakrishnan has been experiencing something similar, as things are getting better in the US and conditions are worsening in India.
“We [are seeing] people [use] WhatsApp and social media … to get oxygen for a loved one, and here we see people fully vaccinated having their beachside vacations,” Radhakrishnan said. “It’s really painful and an irony that is difficult to manage.”
According to Chandrasekhar, who lives in Mumbai, her entire family is in a strict lockdown. Given travel bans and the health risks, she is unsure when, or if, she will be able to return home for the summer. Chandrasekhar said that many people she knows are planning on waiting a few extra months before flying back.
“I can’t talk to too many people here, because a lot of people at Wellesley are going through the same thing. I would always turn to my mom, but I can’t even talk to my mom about it because she feels really bad about it,” Madhu said. “I think not being able to grieve with somebody and having to grieve so far away from family is really difficult.
Wellesley students currently in India
For Ria Goveas ’25, the situation has been even more personal. Being in lockdown during the limbo between high school and college has proven to be suffocating.
“I don’t think I have stepped [outside] at all, especially with groceries being delivered directly to our houses,” she stated. “The only things I’ve been seeing are the 4 walls of my room.”
Goveas further noted that despite how bad the situation in India seems to be online and on the news, it is even worse in person, with the media “downplaying” the crisis. One issue she brought up in particular is vaccine shortage.
“A lot of people are not getting their second doses,” Goveas said. “My parents had to wait for extra time to get theirs, and the vaccines run out within minutes. You have to be ready to sign up by 9:00 to get the vaccine, and slots run out at 9:02.”
She further discussed the overwhelming commonality of catching COVID, with people contracting the virus by even just going to the grocery stores. Moreover, the virus’ mutations have created even more chaos and fear. And, according to Goveas, the new variant is not being recognized by the RTPCR (nasal swab) test.
“My friends at school are showing all the symptoms of COVID and think they have it, but the tests are saying they’re negative,” Govea said. “I think three of my friends from school have COVID right now.”
However, one thing she noted was a sense of camaraderie that has emerged from what is now called “Lockdown 2.0,” a sense of optimism in people’s outlooks.
“In the beginning of the lockdown, people were much more isolated, but they’re more conscious of the fact that this can affect their mental health,” Goveas said. “They are now scheduling Zoom calls and trying to keep friendships.”
How social media has shaped the crisis
While Madhu, Nambrath and Chandrasekhar all appreciate people raising awareness of the crisis on social media, they all worry about the performative nature of many of the posts. According to Chandrasekhar, it seems as though people are virtual signaling, rather than actually invested in learning about the crisis, which “[isn’t] helping anyone.”
“I find a lot of the media depictions of the suffering people are going through to be needlessly graphic and sometimes blatantly disrespectful,” Nambrath said. “Especially showing graphic pictures of cremation, which are supposed to be a very private sacred event, they’re basically being exoticized to create headlines in western media which doesn’t really sit well with me.”
Madhu and Nambath have both taken breaks from social media to reduce the amount of posts they have to see. According to Nambath, it’s been “extremely difficult” to see graphic images of people from India suffering and dying in the news. Madhu added that it is easy to get desensitized with all the “gory stuff” being posted.
“I feel like it’s very invasive,” Chandrasekhar said. “Don’t share pictures of people suffering in [other] countries, it’s not an aesthetic.”
On the other hand, Goveas discusses the merit of social media during the pandemic, especially in India. According to Goveas, the quick response times for people in dire situations who need access to medical supplies could not have happened without the mobilization of social media.
“Every time I open Instagram, I see people posting stories about needing oxygen tanks and beds for uncles and aunts,” Goveas said, adding that people have also used social media to create mental health support groups.
Govea also acknowledges how overwhelming social media is, especially as someone living in India during this crisis.
“It’s very numbing,” she explained. “There are so many posts about needing beds and medicines. People who need others to feed their pets because they’re not at home. People need other people to feed their kids because they’re in the hospital. It’s so scary but there are so many posts like that it’s numbing. You don’t even know what to think anymore.”
Asking for support from the Wellesley community
Ultimately, South Asian students on campus say they are looking for support from fellow Wellesley students and administration. For Madhu, the lack of acknowledgement for the crisis by the upper administration has been upsetting.
“It’s not that [administration doesn’t] know what to do. I don’t know what they’re waiting for,” Madhu said. “I can’t be the only one that’s feeling this bad … I can’t be the only one feeling like this.”
Radhakrishnan, however, brought up that as someone who has been both an organizer of events and a person in administration working on responses, “it’s hard to get the admin to do everything all the time, especially with unprecedented human disasters unfolding everyday.”
“Given the kind of disaster everywhere with COVID I don’t think there will be an official administrative response for everything, but I also think there is the heart for people to reach out and connect with one another and make those spaces,” Radhakrishnan said. “Student spaces are a great way to do that and feel connected, and WASAC and WAA can take a leading role in this.”
Madhu has been taking charge in organizing support groups for students on campus with the Stone Center and Slater International House. Madhu also worked with students from other colleges to organize a fundraiser for four grassroots organizations in India and Kashmir: the Migrant Solidarity Network, Mehran Kashmir, The Tedhi Lakeer Foundation and The Moitri Sanjog Society. According to Madhu, the organizations were chosen due to their support of marginalized communities in South Asia. People interested in donating in US dollars should venmo @Veeksha-Madhu.
“As a community it’s really difficult right now to talk about it much… We don’t have anybody else here for us right now,” Madhu said. “Our loved ones are really far away. It would be so nice to have empathy and our Wellesley sibs to show support.”
Above all Madhu and Nambrath ask for support and acknowledgement from their siblings.
“I would want other Wellesley students to know that this is a difficult time for a lot of Indian and South Asian students on campus,” Nambrath said. “Just a little compassion goes a really long way.”