I haven’t yet registered the massive change that the world is going through. Having lived all of my life in India, I never made too much out of illnesses that other people who grew up in the United States complained about. For example, I never even knew what the flu really was, and this was the general sentiment among my peers, too. Considering colonization, racism, poverty and terrible government institutions, Indians are all too familiar with adversity. As a result, if someone had a sniffle and a little bit of a fever, it wasn’t the biggest source of stress.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I find I feel the same way about a lot of illnesses now that I’m in college. For starters, I’ve never had a flu shot, and I overestimate the strength of my immune system in general. When people first started talking about COVID-19, my attitude, paired with the fact that we’re all college kids and worry less about lots of things, led me to ignore it completely. I didn’t bat an eyelid at the possibility of canceling my intricately planned spring break trip to Morocco and spent all too many hours at the San Francisco International Airport with my dance team en route to competitions in Texas and Maryland.
Suddenly, I found myself in the backseat of my uncle’s car driving to his house in South Bay, with only a small suitcase that I had stress-packed in the trunk. I left without saying goodbye to almost all of the people who made Berkeley home, without the giant bag of Trader Joe’s rolled oats that I had just bought and the meals I had prepped under the assumption that last week was going to be one of watching lectures in my cramped college apartment that my roommates and I were unquestioningly comfortable in.
Instead, all I’ve felt is discomfort about the entire situation, about the paranoia I feel when I hear someone cough and about the genuine uncertainty about when I will see the rest of my family and any of my friends again. I am deeply grateful, of course, that I am safe, healthy and with close family, but I am terrified at how the virus has upended my world, keeping me away from the two lives most familiar to me: life at school in Berkeley and life at home in Mumbai.
Early on Monday, seven counties around San Francisco mandated shelter-in-place orders, and the people of these counties were advised to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. Also on Monday, the Group of Ministers on COVID-19 in India banned the entry of travelers from countries that are hot spots in Europe and Asia, and the Maharashtra government ordered employees from private offices to work from home. The government of Tamil Nadu ordered all educational institutions, malls and theaters to be shut down until the end of the month. Currently, my family and friends may be dispersed across the globe, but COVID-19 has caused uniform panic.
COVID-19 has already killed almost 8,000 and affected close to 200,000 people. But it has also caused chaos in the world’s most powerful economies and threatens to upend entire industries. Around the world, the people dearest to me are mired in extreme anxiety, and the virus even caused my favorite professor to choke up on a recorded Zoom lecture because she feels helpless about not teaching her class as she imagined it.
The anxiety surrounding the virus and the restrictions it is causing only seems to be escalating. Every day is a ping-pong game with my family back in India about whether or not I should decide to hop on a 22-hour direct flight back home because who knows if it is safe to travel? Will San Francisco International Airport even be accessible and functioning by the end of the week? Will I be allowed re-entry into the U.S. after the dust has settled? When will the dust settle?
For now, I have to think about how 22 hours of travel will affect my family back home. I understand that, even if I do quarantine myself, there is always the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 during the course of my travel and putting my family at risk for the same. It is confusing and frustrating to know that almost all my friends are safely within the boundaries of their own homes, and I don’t know when I will see my family and friends in Mumbai again.
Until then, I will continue to attempt to keep myself sane via intermittent Zoom calls with my friends — even those who are within walking distance, whom I will have to hold off on seeing because meeting them does not satisfy the “essential needs” requirement. The unpredictability of when I will stop feeling the discomfort that has currently overwhelmed me is terrifying. I will continue aggressively washing my hands, reassuring my family back home that I’m completely OK, being thankful that I am safe with close family, trying not to eat as a form of procrastinating the studying I should do for optional midterms and joining in on the combined effort to will COVID-19 away.
Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected]