Akshay Dhiman has lived most of his life in Delhi, the second most populated city in India in the second-most populated country in the world. His father and sister live there. So do his grandparents and friends. But in December, Dhiman moved 900 miles and a two-hour plane ride away from where his world used to be.
Mumbai, his new place of residence, is even bigger than Delhi, but Dhiman’s world has shrunk.
Now, Dhiman almost never leaves his building. He doesn’t visit the shops below his bedroom. He gets his groceries delivered. He talks with his family online, but he lives alone and doesn’t get much other human interaction.
In a new city, Dhiman lives in a brand new world, where COVID hangs in the air as thousands of his countrymen die every day because there isn’t enough help and oxygen for all the sick people.
“This is not normal,” Dhiman, my remote co-worker and web developer for Clarion Media Group (which owns Nautilus), said.
No, life hasn’t been normal for the 24-year-old Dhiman since he moved to Delhi for work. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He used to live with others, but they got sick with COVID (they’ve since recovered). Dhiman has remained healthy throughout the pandemic, but he knows COVID could be just around the corner at any moment.
The country with more than 1.3 billion citizens has descended into coronavirus chaos 14 months into the pandemic. For much of the COVID era, India has had a difficult time containing the virus but performed slightly better than the U.S. and Brazil. Now, about 50% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine and though Brazil is still a disaster, India has become the world’s poster child for COVID incompetence.
It’s exhausting to Dhiman that, so many months into the pandemic when so much of the world seems to be on a path toward healing, his country has become a terrain of turmoil. It’s frightening.
“Exhausting? Yeah. But it is scary actually,” Dhiman told Nautilus last week via a Slack call. “You can go out of your house and take a walk. But I don’t do that. I don’t go out of my building. But people are people. They go out. I hear the gyms are open. Especially with the older generation, the virus really can’t stop them. They still meet.”
Dhiman said he’s fine staying at home in what, at times, must be a lonely existence. For now, spending time outside of his living quarters simply isn’t a great option. He knows just how bad the state of life is in Mumbai and Delhi because of COVID, and he knows it must be even worse in the smaller cities and rural areas (where about 70% of India’s population lives).
“If the big cities are in this bad of a state,” Dhiman said, “you can imagine how bad it must be in a small place, where things usually get ignored.”
In the early days of the pandemic, India received applause for locking down the entire nation for three weeks. At the time, the New York Times wrote that it was “the biggest and most severe action undertaken anywhere to stop the spread of the coronavirus.” India Prime Minister Narendra Modi was reasonable, saying, “If you can’t handle these 21 days, this country and your family will go back 21 years. The only option is social distancing, to remain away from each other. There is no way out to escape from coronavirus besides this.”
But a few weeks later, India reopened the economy despite a spike in COVID cases, and since then, there have been multiple peaks and valleys.
In February, for instance, the country was ready to celebrate that it had beaten back the virus. Now, India is experiencing unprecedented coronavirus tumult. By May, more than 1 million people were being infected on a weekly basis, and thousands were dying every day.
Much of the blame has been thrown at Modi’s administration, which allowed religious festivals and political rallies to be staged (where people oftentimes didn’t wear masks). Hospitals have been overwhelmed, and oxygen supplies have been depleted. The healthcare system has been staggered. People can’t get into hospitals, and some are dying in the streets. Suspected COVID patients are found lifelessly floating in the Ganges River.
Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted on April 20 that India and its state of COVID is a “humanitarian disaster unfolding in front of us.”
While the main opposition party in India wants another national lockdown, Modi resists that idea because of the economic havoc it caused in 2020. Instead, the government is hoping vaccines can help the country get past the worst of it. Only 2% of the population is fully vaccinated, however, and the rollout has been slow.
Perhaps the worst part of it for Dhiman is that the government seems to have other priorities.
“The government was supposed to have a lot of new facilities to produce oxygen, but they didn’t,” he said. “Many Indians would say that the [government] is to blame for the issues we are facing now. They actually prefer doing political rallies instead of improving the situation in India.”
Or on spending money on projects that some would term irrelevant.
As an example, Dhiman points to the construction of the Statue of Unity in the state of Gujarat. The statue is the largest in the world at nearly 600 feet, about twice as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty. Seriously, the structure is massive.
The Statue of Unity was completed in 2018 after taking five years to construct, and it cost about $45 million, money that Dhiman argues could have been spent on the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Citizens are also in an uproar as the government moves forward with a nearly $2 billion project to renovate parliament buildings.
“They don’t care. They just don’t care,” Dhiman said. “They bought a few new things that the country didn’t really need.”
As India struggles, the world has taken notice.
The U.S., the U.K., and other European nations have sent oxygen equipment, ventilators, and medicine to India. Russia will send millions of doses of its Sputnik vaccine to help. To Dhiman, the fact other countries are reaching out is a relief. But those acts of generosity won’t end India’s slog through the mud.
That’s why he’s keeping himself cooped up inside, waiting for his turn to get the vaccine. Clearly, people brave the outdoors in Mumbai (during his conversation with Nautilus, one could hear cars honking and sirens wailing in the background). But Dhiman gets deliveries only, he doesn’t visit the restaurants or salons near his apartment building, and he works at his job late into the night.
After all, what else is there to do?
At one point, India celebrated its short-lived triumph over pandemic. Then COVID roared back against the complacency. In the U.S., the pandemic’s end is in sight. For India, squinting into the distance barely reveals the end of the darkness.
“It was getting back to normal, actually,” Dhiman said. “And now it’s not. But hopefully, it will get better. Maybe in two or three months. Or four.”