With over 410,000 deaths related to COVID-19 as of July 14, and a dangerous new Delta variant spreading rapidly, India has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. South Asian University of Miami faculty and students have been left fearing infection and stigmatization as they prepare for the fully in-person fall semester.
Shiv Sharma, a professor of chemistry at the University of Miami whose family is from Nepal, said that in countries throughout South Asia, there is widespread fear of falling victim to the virus and suffering from both physical symptoms and a regional stigma toward those who test positive.
“When someone does get a COVID-19 test, and others know that they have COVID, they will neglect the person and ultimately there will be no one to care for him or her,” Sharma said. “The question then becomes, who will take the infected person to the hospital, or give them oxygen?”
Sophomore biology major Chirag Gowda said when his family in New Delhi, India, received positive COVID-19 tests, they were shunned by others in their community.
“People neglect you and your family and in turn you have to fend for yourself,” Gowda said. “In the end, you succumb to the virus without any help. It’s almost as if it were better off not knowing whether you had COVID-19 or not.”
Gowda added that while he was optimistic due to a decrease in global infections in June, losing family members to infection has reminded him that COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly in South Asia and other densely populated regions across the globe.
“Seeing family member after family member pass really puts the severity of the virus into perspective,” he said. “It was a very painful reminder that this pandemic is far from over. If we start relaxing safety measures around it now, the result is just more funerals.”
Rising senior and chemistry major Rohan Dureja, who has family in New Delhi, said that if the Covid-19 outbreaks in India are not slowed, the rest of the world will suffer the consequences.
“My biggest fear is that variants from different regions within a country will be exchanged at airports and other public facilities, especially in metropolitan cities, and spread to nearby countries through international travel,” Dureja said. “With such a densely populated area, I’m worried that my grandparents, who are already vulnerable, will come into contact with someone else with the variant, and afterwards it will just continually spread to others,” he continued.
UM is returning to fully in-person learning for the fall semester, forcing many students to leave family members in dangerous conditions abroad as they return to campus.
“With online learning I could still get involved from India,” Dureja said. “Now the choice is either that I skip a semester and help care for my grandparents or wait to check up on them in person at the end of the semester.”
Outside of India, Bangladesh and Iran are among the many countries that have also suffered from a summer resurgence of coronavirus cases.
Setareh Gooshvar, a rising junior majoring in biomedical engineering who has family living in Iran, said that he feels the government has contributed to the outbreak by failing to respond with swift, decisive action.
“I definitely feel that the over 80,000 deaths could have been avoided if the pandemic was tackled sooner and with more seriousness,” Gooshvar said. “I don’t think keeping popular public facilities open and resuming life as normal was a wise decision.”
On July 14, Pakistan reached 979,000 total Covid-19 cases, with an average of 25 COVID related deaths a day. Bangladesh is especially struggling to combat the new Delta variant, as it continually reaches new peak daily Covid-19 case counts, averaging over 12,000 cases a day as of July 13.
Ibna Shahalam, a rising sophomore majoring in biology from Bangladesh, said she is worried that her home country and other South Asian nations do not have the necessary resources to combat more contagious coronavirus variants.
“I feel like it’s an understatement to say that Covid-19 is collapsing the healthcare infrastructure of many countries,” Shahalam said.
While UM will return to fully in-person learning in the fall semester, many international students say they are more worried about the safety of their families and friends than preparing for classes.
“With the entire healthcare system of a country like Bangladesh holding on to a thread, I’m scared that it will soon be completely unable to support its sick population,” Shahalam said.
UM strongly encourages COVID-19 vaccinations for students, but does not mandate it. Unvaccinated students must test negative for COVID twice a week to attend classes this fall, and those who test positive are required to quarantine off campus. For fully vaccinated international students, testing before and after travel is strongly encouraged, but not enforced.
Ethan Kumar, a sophomore biology major with family in Mumbai, India, said that he feels COVID-19 will continue to hurt international students disproportionately, as long as regional public-health institutions fail to deliver vaccines.
“Most of my family in Mumbai were delayed on their vaccines by months due to an error from the health ministry,” Kumar said. “For the fall, it’s really critical that the university prioritizes vaccinating international students and anyone who is immunocompromised so that we can all be protected.”
Kumar added that as emerging outbreaks spread across Asia and beyond, the global pandemic is still an international health crisis, despite an anticipated return to normality in the United States.
“I think people should still be on edge. Reopening public facilities isn’t bad, but it should be done slowly and carefully,” he said.
“It’s really easy to forget that what’s happening in South Asia could just as likely transfer over to here.”