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Friday, June 18, 2021

International students, scholar speak out about COVID-19 crisis in India

The crisis has affected many UC Davis students who are from or have family in India

With a mounting death toll and COVID-19 case numbers soaring in India, international students and a postdoctoral scholar from India spoke to The California Aggie about what it’s like to be studying and working abroad as the current COVID-19 crisis worsens in their home country. 

All three interviewees have been living in Davis during the pandemic. 

“I was vaccinated completely before my 50-year-old father [living in India] could get his first shot,” said Kabir Sahni, a third-year communications and international relations double major and ASUCD Senator whose family is from New Delhi. “That in itself just shows how serious the vaccine inequity problem is globally and how drastically different countries’ vaccine rollouts have been.”

Recently, Chancellor Gary May released a statement about the events in India, encouraging students to access mental health resources and to reach out to professors with their concerns. 

Sahni recently co-authored SR #13—a resolution calling on university faculty to ensure equitable access to academic instruction for international students in fall 2021. He said that while he’s grateful for the UC Davis administration’s support, some professors have been less understanding. 

Since many Zoom classes are held synchronously, international students staying back home may be unable to meet regular, pre-pandemic course requirements that are still being enforced.

“As much as we appreciate professors being incredibly kind and lenient, there’s professors who have graded us on participation,” Sahni said. “And that just makes me think, what about people in other countries? What about people who can’t be in the United States? If you hold office hours at 2 p.m. here, that’s 2 a.m. in India. A ton of professors have not been comfortable with adapting to an online format.” 

Student senators at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and UC Los Angeles have authored similar resolutions, urging professors to record lectures and acknowledge the specific struggles that international students have undergone during the pandemic. 

Sahni also spoke about the emotional toll the COVID-19 crisis has taken on Indian students studying in the U.S.

 “I go through my Instagram stories every day, and I see people I’ve known all my life asking for ICU beds for their fathers, or their grandmother has a collapsed lung and is at home and they don’t have a bed, or there are people asking for oxygen,” Sahni said. “Every night and every morning when I’m calling back home, I have to deal with the reality that I’m in my bubble and that is a completely different world. At this point I can only channel prayers and be glad that my family went through the virus at a time when resources were more accessible.”
Dr. Krishna Balasubramaniam, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, described a similar dilemma.

“The helplessness kicks in each time we speak to our family and essentially ask them to ‘take care and stay safe,’” Balasubramaniam said via email. “Both my spouse and I come from a privileged, well-to-do background, and although our parents have gotten the vaccine, our siblings and their spouses haven’t, and don’t look like they’ll have access any time soon. The bigger, more devastating story has to be about the under-privileged… about the millions of daily-wage workers, low-income groups, and other minorities who have suffered disproportionately heavy losses.”

Balasubramaniam also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has badly strained India’s healthcare system, which was already struggling before the pandemic began.

Vikram Rao, a Master’s student in the computer science department and president of the Indian Graduate Student Association, believes that the current supply shortages in India have precipitated the increase in COVID-19 cases.

“In hospitals we are short of beds and short of oxygen and life-saving supplies and other commodities,” Rao, who is from Bangalore, said. “If we had all of the resources, I don’t think there would be such a spike in the cases.”

Balasubramian has a different perspective, however. 

“The second wave hasn’t reached its peak yet, and we still know very little about the epidemiology and evolutionary history of these new variants,” he said. “What we do know is that the public-health sector (already very poorly funded in India pre-COVID-19) faces huge challenges, not least of which is of course maintaining physical distancing with such a dense population.” 

Like Sahni, Balasubramian has found social media challenging, with bad news and worsening statistics being publicized and controversies arising about the Indian government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. He also said that he was not aware of May’s statement about the situation in India, which provided a link to Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS). 

Rao said he believes that problems arising for Indian international students at UC Davis tend to be solved internally and that Indian students are unlikely to approach SHCS.

“Even if you contact these [so-called] services, the person who will be helping us, counseling us, [they] might not know the background or the issue we are facing,” Rao said. “By the time we are done explaining all of the background and all of the issues, I don’t think it will be solved that easily.”

Meanwhile, as an undergraduate, Sahni is continuing to focus on advocacy for his fellow international students.
“If faculty are unwilling to budge, and there’s some faculty that are hesitant to do asynchronous courses—if that’s something that there’s hesitance on, that’s embarrassing,” Sahni said. “This pandemic is literally nobody’s fault, and I understand that, but some of us are having to deal with it so much more [severely] than other people, and it’s time for other people to accept that. That’s the only way we progress together and make it out of this.”

Sahni explained that although he appreciated the resources, he also wished international students had the kind of support that would prevent them from having to seek counseling in the first place. 

“For us, it would just be great if the campus was as flexible as can be,” he said. 
Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org

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