Photo Courtesy of The New York Times.

“India Needs Help and Many of Us are Hurting. Don’t Look Away.”

NYUAD Indian community members experience devastating loss, grief and guilt, as they watch their country crumble and struggle to breathe under Covid-19. We speak to Indian students, contracted colleagues, staff and faculty to hear their stories.

Content warning: This article reports on cases of loss, death and devastation caused by the pandemic.
In early April, Shreya Goel, Class of 2023, heard the news that her mother had tested positive for Covid-19. With her symptoms not improving for some days, she was moved to a hospital. During her first week at the hospital, she remained stable but, by the second week, her symptoms began to worsen.
“She started feeling really weak,” Goel recalled. “Her body wasn’t absorbing oxygen, she was mostly sleeping, she couldn't talk, she had a drip.”
Hospital beds were not available in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital in Delhi, forcing the family to anxiously wait for a week before her mother was able to enter the ICU. The night she was transferred, her oxygen levels began to drop drastically.
The following morning, on April 23, Goel’s mother, Deepti Goel, went into cardiac arrest and lost her life to Covid-19.
“My father waited outside the cemetery for like two hours because there were just bodies and bodies there,” shared Goel. On the same day, India recorded 332,730 Covid-19 cases, topping the global record for the highest single-day surge in cases ever.
Since the pandemic began, India has confirmed more than 19 million cases and recorded a death toll of over 200,000. As the nation of 1.3 billion experiences a deadly second wave of the pandemic and the health system collapses out of overburden and sheer dearth of supplies, the world watches in horror.
Desperate pleas for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds now fill social media feeds, parking lots and parks have become crematorium sites and people are dying in hospital corridors, on roads and in their homes.
Amidst this chaos, the government has carried on with political rallies, using vaccines as bait for votes. Experts have interpreted the crisis as a man-made catastrophe; one that could have been prevented if due diligence was done on the part of the government. Journalist Rana Ayyub has sourced health officials admitting to the gross understatement of the official daily death toll. It is estimated that the actual daily count of Covid-19 deaths in India has already crossed 10,000 –– higher than even the United States.
At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Indian community has been profoundly affected by the crisis. Students, contracted colleagues, staff and faculty members have experienced the death of loved ones on an alarmingly frequent basis, some have begun scrambling for oxygen supplies on online platforms for relatives back home and many are in a state of loss, defeat and overwhelming grief as they witness their country crumble from afar.
“I wake up each morning with a sense of dread. Every person I know is affected or could be,” shared Kanchan Chandra, Professor of Political Science. “If they are safe today I don’t know if they will be safe tomorrow or the day after that, and there is no end in sight.”
Maharashtra, one of the hardest hit states in India, is home to Surabhi Sharma, Program Head of Film and New Media. “No one writes emails announcing loss anymore. There is no time for that,” she said. “A close friend wrote, ‘Lost a dozen colleagues within a fortnight.’ I did not have the courage to ask if amongst these were anyone I know...”
Some contracted colleagues have faced personal losses back home. Chakrapani Sharma, an ADNH staff from Assam in North India, lost his uncle three weeks ago to Covid-19. “His lungs and kidneys were damaged,” he said. “I am feeling painful and helpless, I can’t explain. We couldn’t save him. But I am grateful that I could support my cousin brother for the medical treatment because he was unemployed.”
Many colleagues are unable to visit their families in India, while some cannot return to the UAE for work. Anirban Bishayee, a familiar face in the D2 [Dining Hall], hasn’t visited his family in the last three years. “I really want to go home, as soon as there is a possibility to go,” he explained. “I am worried about my family...there are no proper medical facilities available in [my village].”
Public Safety Officer, Kumar Pillai, on the other hand, went to Kerala over a month ago to visit his family and now cannot leave the country. “I am in a terrible situation,” Pillai confessed. “How can we get [to Abu Dhabi] if the current situation continues here and if the UAE flight ban is not lifted?” According to Pillai, as per G4S policy, employees who exceed their 30 day vacation period are not eligible for their monthly salaries.
When asked about the kind of support they needed from the institution and community right now, students, staff and faculty shared honest responses. “First, I think it is important for everyone to recognize where we are, that large swaths of Abu Dhabi and the country are inhabited by people with ties to the South Asian corridor,” noted Deepak Unnikrishnan, Assistant Arts Professor of Literature and Creative Writing. “I believe it is getting harder for many people to look away or pretend anymore.”
“India needs help and many of us are hurting,” added Sharma, affirming this sentiment. “Don't look away.”
Some students are struggling to cope with academic expectations, and others are experiencing immense guilt for being away from their families. “Just the fact that I'm here and everything seems so normal…the chances of going back home are reducing day by day and it makes me feel sad,” shared Isha Gandham, Class of 2024.
Aathma Dious, Class of 2021, too, reflected on the dissonance of her biggest concern being her finals, while the biggest concern back home is getting oxygen and fighting for survival. “I have grandparents back home who are just in the middle of this absolute apocalypse,” said Dious, who is originally from Kerala and grew up in the Gulf. “I don't know if i'm going to see them again at this point.”
Many have also asked for more empathic and restorative academic systems. “It's a rigorous university and I understand the expectations that they have of their students'' said Sameera Singh, Class of 2022. “But right now is not the time for them to expect us to be at our best.”
“The nature of academic institutions like this are rooted in output and productivity, which rarely leaves space for the acknowledgement of grave loss and grief,” observed Lubnah Ansari, Class of 2021. “I would firmly request all individuals to extend radical empathy to their community. We all need it. When our systems cannot provide a safe space, we seek a community that does.”
Goel said that some of her professors have been extremely kind and understanding. One of them got her biryani and another took her for a walk on the beach. While many of her professors gave her exemptions and extensions, most students are left with little institutional support to complete their courses.
“Work is definitely the last thing I want to do,” shared Goel, who has been struggling to eat and sleep, let alone concentrate. “I honestly don't know how I'm keeping up or doing. I'm just not keeping up.”
Even though she is surrounded by caring friends, Goel felt that because of the stress of finals week, she feels guilty about taking their time and is hesitant to ask for help. “They have so much work,” she said. “And even if I get exemptions, they don't.”
This month, one of Goel’s friends on campus lost a close family member. “This was very close to when I lost my mother,” shared Goel, who said she did not know how they kept supporting each other through their grave personal losses.
“Yes, I lost my mother,” she said, “but others are also going through the same or much worse.”
A Vigil for Indian lives organized by NYUAD students’ Association of South Asian Cultural Understanding (TASHAN) and the Office of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education (SLICE) is taking place this Sunday, May 2nd at 8 pm.
Kaashif Hajee is Editor-in-Chief. Nandini Kochar is a Columnist. Email them at
gazelle logo