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Locked-down in India: A Pandemic Away From Home

Amidst the ongoing pandemic, a journalist from The Edition stranded in India due to the nation-wide lockdown imposed since March 21, narrates her personal experience.

Shahudha Mohamed
10 May 2020, MVT 11:02
Shahudha photographed at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute's campus while under lockdown. PHOTO: LEEN AHMED
Shahudha Mohamed
10 May 2020, MVT 11:02

When I first arrived in India on February 24 for a one-month long journalism training programme, it was one of the only densely populated countries in the world that had not recorded a COVID-19 outbreak. At the time, the country had only identified three isolated cases of the virus, all detected in students that had arrived from Wuhan City, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

The India that welcomed me was as loud, chaotic and bustling as ever. It was everything I had locked away in memory from the two times I had previously visited, if not more. With the hectic roads, swarming market-places, hoards of people hurrying about their daily lives, Kolkata buzzed with an energy that saturated the atmosphere so thickly it was almost tangible. I remember my classmates, 15 or so foreign students from different parts of the world, being fascinated with the insane traffic, astounded at the fact that the sound of honking never ceased on the streets.

A pre-lockdown photo of Shahudha and her classmates in front of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, India. PHOTO: SHAHUDHA MOHAMED

For the most part of the course at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, we lived life looking forward to tomorrow. Attending lectures every morning and afternoon, getting to know our acquaintances, making new friends, going out if we had the energy after classes, catching an auto-rickshaw to the nearby mall, stopping by the food stalls on the roadside for 'pani puri', me personally, drinking 'chai' every chance I got. We were all trying to get the fullest experience out of the one month we were scheduled to be in one of the most diverse countries in the world, rich in history, language and culture.

Then, everything seemed to change almost overnight.

After the number of cases surpassed three hundred, and the fatalities climbed to two-digits, the Indian government imposed a nation-wide lockdown on March 21, two days before my scheduled date of departure, in an attempt to contain the virus outbreak.

Although most of my classmates were able to prepone their tickets and make it out of the country on the last outbound flights, I, along with two other students in my class, was not as lucky.

India’s seven-day lockdown was then extended for 21 additional days, crushing my hope of travelling back home any time soon.

A journal entry by Shahudha on the 23rd day of lockdown. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

With no choice left but to sit tight, I began working from my room in the university guesthouse three days after the conclusion of my course. As the globe slowed down and, quite literally, screeched to a halt in March, I spent most of my day at my desk wading through bad news and trying to hold on to hope.

I, like everyone else, was not prepared for the intense emotional toll that the situation would take on my mental health. Being a journalist does not come with the privilege of ‘tuning out’ the pandemic no matter how bad the situation got. It was my job to stay informed and ensure that others stayed informed - a responsibility that carried immense weight especially in the middle of a crisis when social media platforms were constantly being flooded with fake news.

Despite my best efforts to hold on to rationality and hope, it got hard to breathe sometimes. I reached a point where, on some days, I was unable to hold back the tears while reading certain news stories. Seeing the numbers spike every time I refreshed the web page filled me with a hollow dread. Although I was safe inside the four walls of my room, everything outside of it made me want to grieve - and subconsciously, I think I did.

Where Shahudha spent most of her waking hours during the 50 days of lockdown she experienced in India. PHOTO: SHAHUDHA MOHAMED

By the twelfth day of lockdown, the snacks and fruits I had stockpiled for the initial lockdown period of seven days had run out. Coffee and tea had become a luxury. Only a few banknotes and coins were remaining from the money I had brought with me for the one-month duration. All the shops were closed, restaurants shut down. Universities had padlocked the gates and sent all the students home. The streets were completely deserted, blanketed by a thick layer of silence. I had not heard the sound of honking in two weeks. It felt like the entire country, and all the 1.3 billion people living in it, were holding their breaths. Never in a million years could I have imagined India like this.

On that same day, my friend in Punjab, terrified of all the possible scenarios that could unfold, sent me a picture of a gathering of people in front of her very own doorstep - a clear and massive violation of lockdown rules.

“They're there to get the only food they can. They have families to feed, I can't even blame them", she said, "but what if even one person there already has the virus?”

As international media repeatedly underlined that authorities were failing to conduct proper monitoring and testing in India, especially in rural areas, there was little comfort for locals stuck in such places.

Reports estimated that the scenario in India would deteriorate even further in the upcoming days, which only added to the constant question in the back of our minds, “If push comes to shove, and we get sick here, what will be our fate?”

Maldivian students stuck in foreign countries due to travel bans and lockdowns, flooded social media with posts, begging the government for repatriation efforts.

A local medical student at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital in Bangladesh, Dhaka, expressed similar concerns to The Edition, noting that regional clusters were identified in the city, where Maldivian students were residing.

After seeing the healthcare systems of well-developed countries like China and Italy collapse with the overwhelming number of cases, locals stranded in countries with less facilities and safety measures in place had every right to be concerned about their well-being.

Amidst strong criticism by some, accusing students calling for repatriation of “endangering society by wanting to travel back despite the risk”, locals in foreign countries demanded answers from relevant authorities. Fear for one-self aside, there were many other factors fueling the loud calls for evacuation.

“Apart from the risk of just staying here when we see so many positive cases each day, not all of us can even afford to stay back because a lot of our parents are financially affected because of the pandemic”, a student from Monash University, residing in Subang Jaya, Indonesia, said.

“A lot of us are staying alone, so it is difficult to cope with everything”, she echoed a sentiment shared by everyone in similar situations.

“We cant even go to the hospital regarding another health issue because it is really risky”, she added, “So far, food and essentials are still available enough for survival, but we can see the shelves not being restocked. It is unpredictable how things will go. Some of my friends living in different areas are already having a hard time with getting some of the essentials”.

Students in countries without proper precautionary protocols, such as Belarus, one of the only European countries that has still not implemented strict containment measures, reached out to the government concerned about their own safety.

Health care professionals suggest that the number of deaths in Belarus has been intentionally underreported, with independent media reporting that hospitals are under pressure to register COVID-19 deaths as cases of pneumonia or heart failure.

“I am scared to go out even for grocery shopping here.That’s why I buy groceries for at least two weeks. But I keep on thinking, if we run out of these, we’ll have to go out again. We can’t stock up for months all at once. That’s not easy, but what if the situation gets even worse than it is now? I don’t have enough masks. The thought of getting out of the house and being exposed to others scares me.Specially because I’m someone who has asthma too”, said a local student from Grodno State Medical University.

Noting the drawbacks of a language barrier, being an ethnic and religious minority, in addition to being away from family, she added, “getting sick while being in a foreign country is really different from getting sick while we are at home”.

As someone who was living the same reality, I could understand where her frustration was stemming from. Placing an online order for groceries was an available option I could not access because I was unable to speak Hindi, and the operator on the end of line at the only store delivering groceries in the area did not understand English. In a hospital setting where locals were barely provided a quality standard of care, what would be the fate of a foreigner who could not even communicate their issues?

A shot of the campus at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI). PHOTO: SHAHUDHA MOHAMED

Already weighed down by my current situation and the concerns expressed by my friends, scattered in various countries across the globe, the news of the community spread confirmed in capital Male’ on April 15 completely gutted me.

It took a while to properly sink in, as I forced myself to listen to the authorities and pump out the articles without letting my mind dwell too deeply into the immensity of this new development. During the entire week, I felt a rollercoaster of emotions, swinging wildly between panic, worry, anger and helplessness.

Now, I was more worried for my family, than they were worried for me. Now, I was worried for my country more than I was worried for myself.

I can still recall the sense of dread that filled me as I listened to the press conference delivered by the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) on the night of April 18, when the authorities projected the worst case scenario for Maldives. It was much more horrifying than I had ever anticipated.

But, I knew I had to be strong, now more so than ever.

Staying rational in a world that is escalating into an unprecedented nightmare experience is, to say the least, extremely tough. I drew strength from my team, my friends, and my family, who were there for me no matter how far away. I placed hope in the future, in all the moments I was looking forward to and life after the ‘apocalypse’. I held on to faith that having survived wars and plagues, humanity would survive this too. I held onto the faith that we would come out of this as better people, learning from all the systematic failures and abhorrent practices exposed by this pandemic.

Eating dhal curry for every meal was hardly how I pictured my 2020, but it seemed like a minor inconvenience, realising that COVID-19 patients were lying in hospital beds alone, without their loved ones around to offer them any comfort.

As the year gave way to the holy month of Ramadan, despite the lack of communal spirit, the salivating arrangements on the iftar table, the peace of praying taraweeh in mosques and the overall atmosphere of happiness and joy, I counted myself luckier than most with a roof over my head, and food on the table, no matter what it was.

The university accommodation block for foreign students enrolled in ITEC programmes. Shahudha's room is on the ground floor to the left. PHOTO: SHAHUDHA MOHAMED.

A pandemic calls for us to realise and reflect on our privilege and to give back what we can. Each and every one of us should do our part in reducing the burdens of others instead of adding to them in these trying times. Demanding luxuries and complaining about the most trivial of things while the world operates on survival mode is nothing short of selfish and inconsiderate, especially when so many sacrifice so much for the greater good in an effort to alleviate the consequences of this crisis.

After much procrastination, I pen this out on May 9, 2020, shortly after the confirmation that a chartered flight is coming to take me home.

The wait has been long, difficult, even gruelling at times, but it was worth it. After 50 days of strict lockdown, the 14 days of quarantine does not diminish my excitement one bit as I look forward to seeing the ocean again and feel the sand between my toes.

For those of you out there, still waiting to receive that relieving confirmation, I beg of you to not lose hope. Authorities constantly assure that they are doing the best they can. Stay informed, take every precaution possible, voice your concerns and look forward to ‘someday’. Tomorrow may be darker than today, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel.

We will make it through. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even soon - but we will make it through someday. In the meantime, be patient. Count your blessings. Check up on your friends. Take care of yourself. Try your best to be a beacon instead of a burden. Learn from the mistakes made by others.

History may repeat itself, as it always has, but at the end of the day, we will celebrate how we emerged victorious from the depths of darkness.

We need to stay around for then.

Editor's Note: We are pleased to confirm that Shahudha Mohamed has landed safely in Maldives, along with 234 other passengers that the flight repatriated. For those interested, we will be following her journey through quarantine until she is finally nestled in the comfort of her home. On behalf of our newsroom, we thank our readers for the kind words of concern and well wishes that were extended to our colleague and dear friend.

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