Roundtable: India and the pandemic back home

For many South Asians in Canada, they’re watching the pandemic on two fronts

For many South Asians in Waterloo Region, the pandemic exists on two fronts. While Canada is weathering out its third wave of COVID-19, we’re also making progress on vaccination. As of June 16, the death toll in Canada as a result of the COVID-19 virus sits at 26,001. Meanwhile in India, they are in the midst of a devastating second wave — a staggering 381,903 have died from the virus. Beds and cemeteries continue to fill up, and politics muddies the country`s pandemic response.

We invited a group of Indians and a Pakistani who either live in Waterloo Region, or have ties here, to talk about their experience and how the pandemic has played out for them and their families. All names have been changed due to a very zealous Indian government.

Salena is a University of Waterloo student. She sadly lost a family member to COVID and has not been able to return to India.

Neesha is a PhD student at UW, completing her studies back in India. She had recently recovered from COVID before the roundtable.

Muhil is a graduate of UW and now lives in Toronto. He is an avid follower of Indian politics.

Ayesha is Pakistani from the region. She had to travel back to Pakistan to take care of family. She also has many friends living in India as well. Special thanks to her for helping set up the roundtable.

The following is a transcript of the roundtable. It has been edited down from a nearly two-hour conversation for clarity, brevity and flow. It was originally recorded on May 30th. 

PHI DOAN: I think we can start the ball rolling, so Muhil it’s all yours.

MUHIL: I didn’t expect this level of power. We can start with Neesha’s experience with the virus and what the response of the community or the government was while you were infected.

NEESHA: It’s just been a very stressful time even before my sister was infected. My maternal uncle and his whole family were in Mumbai at that time where the second wave started in Maharashtra. They were there at that point and all of them had COVID. They survived, but even then, they were struggling. They are not as financially well to do and they had to go for a government hospital to be admitted.

I live in a [seven-story] high-rise apartment setting where I would say about 100 to 150 families live in this small space. The bizarre part is that my sister had no exposure outside for 14 days so her first appointment with the doctor — which was virtually done — he did not recommend an RT-PCR test. She had high fever at that point for three days straight and no other symptoms. There were medicines prescribed which were precautionary, then we did the RT-PCR test just for our own curiosity. She was positive. We also did the CT scan for her and she already had pneumonia by day six.

Fortunately, [my sister] didn’t have to be hospitalized or didn’t need to actually be oxygenated. Then I was tested positive a week after she was starting to get better. We were really worried for my parents who are both 60 and above, but they had their first dose of vaccination, and being privileged enough to have a house which has multiple rooms to isolate in.

The government infrastructure, the public sector of healthcare, has never known to be very good. The private sector has always known to be doing all right, so as long as you have money, you have health care in India. That system was also breaking down and this is when privileged people were freaking out, but the system has been broken for poor people for a long time. That’s part of the outrage.

PD: Let’s keep moving along and go with Salena next.

SALENA: Well, my story was I had just come back. I just started a new job here in Canada because of the pandemic. On May 5th I come back home from my minimum wage job. I had just spoken to my parents at about 10 p.m. and I always talk to them. That’s how I connect with them back home in India. So my mom goes, “can you please go sit with your sister.”

So it was that moment when I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know what and who I’ve lost right now in my family. My mom goes, “your grandfather has passed.” It was too much for me to handle. He already was not feeling as well and nobody had told me that he had gone he had COVID-19 or anything like that. And we had a personal nurse that came home to him, so it was really hard on all of us.

MUHIL: Which part of India are they in?

SALENA: They’re in Tamil Nadu, right now. Chennai. So, he passed away and then a day later, my mom calls me again and says, “you know your dad has COVID.” So, it’s everything felt like a spiral down basically. I tried to compose myself. It kind of became really hard for us with the fact that our flights to India – we had a flight on I think June 1st. It was for May 1st and it kept moving and it just kept moving. So, hopes are all gone at this point. I just want everybody in my family to be okay.

He’s much better so we’re in a better place, but as you said the privileged people have seen it better. Yes, sadly I’m one of those, but fortunately my having some connections back home with the government, we were able to get some medication and some oxygen cylinders to the house. God forbid if I had been on the other side of the spectrum, I don’t know how my family would have managed and if my dad would have been alive today or not.

That system was also breaking down and this is when privileged people were freaking out, but the system has been broken for poor people for a long time.

– Neesha

MUHIL: My family, we did not have personal experiences with COVID until last week. My sister tested positive like a week ago. That’s when everybody started panicking and things were crazy, but lucky for us and the healthcare and the government response in the place where we live is much better – like in Kerala.

You see a very different kind of response to this pandemic across the country, but it also means that states which have invested consistently in healthcare have better response-like mechanism when it comes to pandemics. The state where my parents live, they also had this experience with Nipah virus, which is very contagious. It has higher mortality rate than even COVID, so it happened three or four years ago. There’s even a movie about it, so if you’re interested you can look at that. It’s called Virus, it’s really good.

So, the same health minister who was in charge of that virus response team was still the health minister of the state, but of course now numbers are going up. I don’t know what will happen. We are privileged in terms of like having like more money than other people for sure and of course being able to live in a place where government response is also better. So lucky on two fronts.

[When] the first lockdown happened, millions of people had to migrate back home from major cities like Delhi, Mumbai and because of very bad government response, many people died. Hundreds of people had to die just because they were going back home, like the migrant workers especially. They had to walk back thousands of kilometers because all public transit had stopped. That was that’s the other side of the spectrum which we don’t get to see. Those are the invisible ones.

What was your experience with everyday life? Salena, when did you move here to Canada?

SALENA: I’ve been here since 2016. I mean if you guys know me, I’m a person that’s always outside the house, so the pandemic has definitely taken a toll on me where I’m sitting in the house and my parents are panicking from everywhere being like “wear a mask, don’t take pictures without a mask. I know you’re not carrying a mask.” Since the incident happened, I’ve been wearing two masks so that’s me right now.

MUHIL: Neesha, you have been there since last November. How was your experience before that? How were you able to access all the basic things like groceries and stuff easily or was there a problem with accessing that?

NEESHA: So just like many other middle-class people in India we have a maid, except that over the years it’s become a relationship. She’s kind of like family. During the lockdown, everyone had to not have help coming in the complex.

My mom didn’t want to put us or them at risk because the help, her name is Rekha, she works in five houses in the complex and maybe other places as well. So, we had been paying her for not working and not coming, but I think because of the relationship they have, my mom and her, she brings vegetables for us.

There’s also this thing called Jiomart which is kind of an amazon version here for groceries – my parents have been against these kinds of things. They would always plan their grocery visits before and they would never order anything online. Then during the pandemic, they were forced to start using these kinds of avenues.

MUHIL: I’ve heard that when people are asking for help online, for example Twitter, the government has been saying that you’re lying, you’re just spreading rumors that there is no oxygen. So, did that deter people from actually asking for help in your experience online?

NEESHA: I had to turn to social media as well because when we were looking for oxygen. We were looking for options, like information online and Instagram. There are so many people putting out guides and stories for real-time checks where there are 23 beds as of this time this day and literally those are the kind of information that was helping us, not any like official website or official number that you would call.

I think when you’re in that position, you take that risk. There was literally someone who asked for oxygen on Twitter and the UP (Uttar Pradesh) government, the local [official] of my state government was like, “you’re talking against the government,” and literally the government was not mentioned in the tweet.

I think it’s important to mention that there’s also a bill being passed in parallel, the IT reform. Like there’s this war going on between social media and the government right now where the government wants to be able to trace the first originator of some WhatsApp message, which puts end-to-end encryption

MUHIL: WhatsApp is challenging that government regulation in high court.

NEESHA: Yeah, it’s in Delhi high court because they can’t do it without giving up end-to-end encryption, which is their like backbone for that particular app. There was that and then there’s this obsession of maintaining an image over doing all the other things that you need to be doing during a pandemic, and I think people are outraged. I mean given what’s at stake, I’ll deal with that later. I need to save this person I know and I love I mean…

MUHIL: Nothing else matters at that point.

NEESHA: Right yeah. Nothing else matters at that point. The government will put a UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) on me or something, but at least the person I want alive hopefully will stay alive. There’s a desperation there.

MUHIL: Yeah, and Delhi police also try to intimidate Twitter by visiting their office and serving them notice [few weeks ago] because they were tagging the government officials or government politicians posts as misinformation. They put that tag. Some government didn’t like that. That’s why they were trying to intimidate Twitter by visiting their office and threatening to shut it down by using these IT(Indian Technology) rules.

PD: It feels like India is very authoritarian with the government caring more about its image than anything else. What kind of dangers are you guys in just talking about this with me?

MUHIL: (chuckles) It depends on which part of India you live in. If you’re especially living in the ruling party governed state like in Uttar Pradesh or even within Delhi, where this union government controls the police, you are at risk for sure. So, the only protection you have against such big authoritative government is if you are a very famous person, they will be a little bit deterred because they would think it would actually spoil their image internationally. If you’re if you’re an everyday person, it’s easy for them to just say you’re an anti-national or they would just file sedition charges on you.

But I think at the grassroots level right now there’s a lot of opposition to this government because people who voted for the government are really angry. So that might change and yes especially today or yesterday the all-India farmers union said they would campaign against the ruling government in the next election, so that’s a huge deal like farmers, farming communities are very huge in India, so that’s actually a big deal.

PD: And Ayesha:, I know you’re actually in Pakistan at the moment. I’m not sure what your situation is quite like when it comes to speaking about this kind of stuff.

AYESHA:: Well, if I say something against the army and it’s published, I’m gonna probably get fined or sent to jail. If you say something against the military usually, you’re screwed. And it doesn’t matter, I could be in Canada and talking about it and they could still fine me and put me in jail.

PD:  So, you saying all that, they might be giving you a ticket in a few days then?

AYESHA: No, that’s in an article somewhere recently too because they have changed the rules now. So, you can get up to, I think, five years of jail time maybe, and I forget what the fine is. 500,000 rupees, something like that. I’m not saying anything against the military. I’m just saying what the rules are. (laughs) I mean most of the stuff that I would say is about COVID and the government, it has probably more to do with provincial and federal government versus the military.

If you’re if you’re an everyday person, it’s easy for them to just say you’re an anti-national or they would just file sedition charges on you.

– Muhil

PD: I just want to say again, thank you for joining us. It really does help to get other perspectives especially since, I believe the rules and regulations prevent people from India and Pakistan from coming over, so you are kind of under a similar situation and what’s going on in India as well

AYESHA: Yeah, I am, because there’s flight bans for Pakistan as well and they started at the same time as India, so it’s one of those things. They’re like, “well they’re next door, so we should just ban them as well.” Even though there’s other countries who are flying back and forth with Canada that have more cases than Pakistan does, but again I mean, just like India, Pakistan doesn’t tell you the accurate numbers and cases and deaths that occur during COVID.

I’ve heard they might bring in the army to make sure that people are following their SOPs (That’s like standard procedures for COVID), and they have police going around. Every time my mother and I go to the park, the police – there’ll be at least two vans that will come into the park with their sirens on, and they’ll get out of the cars with their sticks and tell people to leave the park. They prefer people leaving the park by sunset.

I don’t know if it’s COVID related, but they also usually really bother fruit vegetable vendors or any vendors on the streets, and so they’ll tell them to leave from wherever they are, which is hard because that’s part of their livelihood. You can’t take that away from them and its food as well, like food places are allowed to stay open, so why can’t they stand where they’re standing.

MUHIL: The informal sector makes up huge chunks of both Pakistan and India. Their experiences during COVID have been the same. They are the ones who experience police brutality at a regular all the time because their business; their livelihood is disrupted on a regular – like even before COVID happened because if a police person comes by, they have to leave and COVID gave them some extra power to police these weak vulnerable people.

AYESHA: Yeah, I’ve noticed it so much more now, when I’m out driving, because I try to get my parents to leave every day for at least an hour, and now I drive around and I notice it’s so much more. Like there’s always police everywhere now. Police presence has actually increased during COVID, especially these last couple of weeks.

Like Neesha as well, we have maids who work in the house. We also have attendants/nurses in the house because I live with my grandparents, and so they all are now taking it more seriously after hearing what’s happening in India, because before they didn’t even want to wear masks.

They don’t want to get the vaccine because either they don’t have direct access to it –  like sometimes you might not have a phone. How are you supposed to register for a vaccine when you can’t even text? Or they’re worried about reactions to the vaccine or hesitant because they’ve had experiences before where it might be a fake vaccine that they’re getting.

That happened during the polio drive when they ended up getting water instead of an actual vaccine, so a lot of these things happen historically, which makes them not want to get the vaccine.

SALENA: My friend actually got a rabies vaccine instead of the COVID vaccine.

AYESHA: Oh my gosh.

SALENA: It was crazy, so yeah that’s something I know that happens.

Like there’s always police everywhere now. Police presence has actually increased during COVID, especially these last couple of weeks.

– Ayesha

MUHIL: So, Salena, your parents live in Chennai, right? How do you feel about that initial response by Tamil Nandu government at that point?

SALENA: I would like to say that the Tamil Nandu government, it can be so much better, right? It’s like we weren’t prepared. The government wasn’t prepared for this kind of something to happen. They knew it was happening, but everything was kept under the books. Like for example, there were a number of deaths that were occurring because of COVID-19. We’d only find out when we found out that the cemetery did not have space. How is the cemetery getting filled up if there are only ten cases in Tamil Nandu, huh? Like that’s the one thing which is really irritating.

Secondly, being really closely related with the government I know the ins and outs of it. So, if the vaccine that became available it would always go to the politicians’ friends and families. And oxygen cylinders were the same thing. The rich people get it first. The people who could afford it were getting more than enough of it. I know people in India who have extra oxygen cylinders. What the heck is extra oxygen cylinders, right? And why do you need them? Why can’t you give them to people who need them?

MUHIL: With the new DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government, I see they’re a bit more proactive right now. Do you think this government is doing a better job than the previous one?

SALENA: I don’t think it’s going to be a better job to be very honest. I think it’s all just talk and unless I actually see it happen, I’m not going to support it yet. I don’t support any party very clearly, so I’m more of when things will happen, I will be okay with it, and if they don’t happen, nothing has changed for us, right?

If the vaccine that became available it would always go to the politicians’ friends and families. And oxygen cylinders were the same thing.

– Salena

PD: We were discussing this a bit earlier, but today or yesterday was the seven years of Modi. So, this is kind of a historical day, but with everything going on it is very bittersweet to say the least or if they would even recognize it as bittersweet at all.

SALENA: I don’t know if all of you know, but on Twitter and I think he did a press conference, he spoke about, “oh India is the best and we are handling this COVID situation like phenomenally,” and then not even like 20 days later, the cases in India are skyrocketing. I don’t know how the main leader would talk about how he’s the best and how everything is perfect and then 20 days later, why are your cases all up? Like these are questions that we need to ask.

NEESHA: As a scientist I could see it and if you have a health ministry, they should have seen it. Someone in college could see this if they saw the data. The data was available, however much the numbers are suppressed, you can still see that the second wave started by March end if not before. By that time, you could have seen the trend, and unlike the first wave which was clamped down with the lockdown; with a quite stringent lockdown right away. Here I think I would say that politics was prioritized over taking care of the pandemic.

MUHIL: Yeah, we should definitely talk about Kumbh Mela and Bengal elections because Kumbh Mela – like Phi, I don’t know if he knows – it’s called the biggest temporary city in the world because millions of people congregate in one location and you can see it from space. It’s a religious festival that happens every 12 years or so and they have mini melas every year, but it’s a big event. It happens and they let it happen while the second wave was happening.

So, millions of people gathered in one place in Northern India in the state of Uttarakhand and they went back home after being there. At the same time there was another election happening in the state of West Bengal, which is beside Bangladesh. That’s a very populated state, like 400 million people live there, and Prime Minister Modi was campaigning in that state where hundreds of thousands of people would come attend this campaign.

It’s much like Trump campaigns that happened. And that state already has a very bad health care system. It’s not that great; it’s one of the poor states. And even after knowing that, he deliberately – his ministers and himself – attended campaigns there and helped spread COVID far and wide because of that.

NEESHA: Just the hypocrisy of what’s said and what’s done. So, one example is a couple of months back during the farmers’ protest. We were talking about censorship and WhatsApp right here, and there was this toolkit which was to help with the farmers protest by a climate activist in India. There was a case against this person Disha Ravi and then the same person had tool kits for helping people during the oxygen shortage phase.

They had this whole document where you could find medicine, who you should call and all these things and there was no action against that. There’s a hypocritical response to when a toolkit is “bad” and when a toolkit is all right because it helps people.

And that state already has a very bad health care system. It’s not that great; it’s one of the poor states. And even after knowing that, he deliberately – his ministers and himself – attended campaigns there and helped spread COVID far and wide because of that.

– Muhil

NEESHA: The other thing I wanted to mention was to add to Salena’s point. There are a lot of religions in India and everyone has a different system for a funeral and some of it includes burning the dead body, some of it is burying. And none of these things match the [death toll] numbers.

So, there were the pyres then there was this news article where in Uttar Pradesh, the state I’m in, coming to rural areas there’s a lot of deaths in villages and there’s this really nice source of information: PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India). They cover rural stories. The poor people are not taking favi flu, they’re taking they’re paracetamol, which is like the ibuprofen equivalent, multivitamins and ivermectin, that’s it. That’s all that’s been offered to them. There have been so many deaths that dead bodies were found in the river – Ganga river – at the banks in shallow graves and there was a rainfall and all of these were uncovered. It’s just horrifying. I wanted to point that out because I think that image stays with you much longer than any text, when you come across something like that.

The international national media try to cover it and then there are these… Muhil, do you want to talk about the fake news outlets that were made in response to the international media?

MUHIL: Oh, don’t get me started. They already had a very robust system of spreading fake news. They have these so-called legitimate sounding journals or newspapers which they have established over years and have a huge following now. For example, when you talk about it… it started as a very neutral kind of paper called Swarajya Mag, but eventually when more people started following it, they started showing their true colours. Like there would be very pro government articles.

So, government already has complete control over Indian media, especially Hindi media, like national media. They own the shares to big companies like Zee News and all the big Indian national media, so it’s easy for them to control the narrative and it’s hard for people to see the truth. Very few media like NDTV (New Delhi Television) which is not controlled by the government. They are always trying to criminalize those media by raiding the media houses and trying to arrest all the leaders of the company.

It’s New Delhi Television that’s one of the biggest Indian news media which is not pro government so they were always trying to shut them up some way or the other.

PD: For a lot of Canadians, this is outside of their usual news diet. So, for us it is kind of hard to really tell what’s happening for you guys. It’s just way more high stakes in a way, isn’t it?

MUHIL: Yeah, it is. You can see very centrist or left leaning articles over the last five, six years turned totally right-wing, to give an example it’s like Fox News in U.S is considered very right wing. So, now when you see Hindi media almost all of them start to look like Fox News; the Indian version.

You can see this transition has only happened within the last five, six years since this government came to power or just before this government came to power, so you know how much control they have over what people think right now because people are being fed these lies. but that’s how they’ve win all elections. Now I don’t know what will happen the next election. It’s coming up in next year.

There have been so many deaths that dead bodies were found in the river – Ganga river – at the banks in shallow graves and there was a rainfall and all of these were uncovered. It’s just horrifying.

– Neesha

PD: I’m pretty sure it the pandemic will end for India at some point, but I guess it’s just a question of when. Just how are you guys feeling about the next few months?

SALENA: I, to be very honest, I’m not ready because I’m really scared that I’m going to lose somebody in my family. That’s like that’s my biggest concern.

Is the government going to actually help? Yes, being from a well-off family, we might be able to have connections to get these things, but for how long? And you know there is going to be a time when the government says, “oh the lockdown’s lifted” and then everybody goes out flooding and everybody’s back on the beach, like Tamil Nandu has really famous beaches and stuff.

So, people are going to be out on the streets and about and it’s going to be India all over again and you know that means that it’s going to be crowded spaces like not even a centimeter difference from another person standing next to you. I, to be very honest, in hindsight, I don’t even see this ending. We’re just going to learn to live with it and adapt with it. It’s my feeling and what do you guys think?

NEESHA: I am a little more hopeful than Salena for some particular reasons. I think the second wave is what I feared the first wave would have been in India given that we knew this health sector was as it was. That has not changed drastically in the last year. The variant is worse. It’s affecting people faster, but also vaccinations are working. My parents were in contact with my sister more than I was, and I was infected and they were not.  

The vaccines work and unfortunately there’s world politics and like the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver and local politics as well going on around vaccines, but the vaccines will reach people at some point and things will be a little better than they are now.

It’s going to be a lot of factors just somehow giving us some outcome that we cannot predict. My only hope is really the vaccine and I think any effort that can go into the awareness of people taking it would help.

AYESHA: India was doing really well with their vaccination drive and then cases went up and with the patent waivers and stuff, it just makes it harder for India to be able to vaccinate its population. In terms of whether this is gonna go away or not, for us it’s just the beginning of having all these different variants around. And again, like nobody actually follows all the protocols. It drives us crazy.  Like they had weddings in the middle of COVID. Why? Why? Why do you need to get married in the middle of a pandemic? Just do a Zoom wedding or something. There were so many people that we knew through friends and family that were like, “oh yeah, I went to a wedding and I got COVID.” Then they’re not really doing contact tracing, so you don’t really know and people are traveling and coming into Pakistan from various places [and] weren’t quarantining.

I was joking about this, but it’s probably true. I was probably the only person on the plane who quarantined every single time that I traveled. I traveled twice, so I traveled last year in July when my grandfather was ill, and I was really worried for him. So, I just jumped on a plane and left. I was really scared because it was my first time traveling during a pandemic and then the second time was at the beginning of this year.

MUHIL: The interesting thing to think about is that in countries like India and Pakistan, the variants originally came in from international travelers, who are generally more privileged. So, you bring in everything and so you have an extra responsibility to people in your country, who are not as privileged as you.

In terms of whether this is gonna go away or not, for us it’s just the beginning of having all these different variants around.

– Ayesha

PD: I guess my final question for you guys is just, how are you feeling now?

AYESHA: It comes and goes. When I was in Canada earlier, you’re used to a certain style of lockdown and protocols and whatnot and you can trust everyone around you. When you’re going to a store, you know everyone’s going to be wearing a mask or people wait outside, people distance.

When I came here in July a lot of my friends from Canada asked me, “Hey, what is it like over there?” because there’s still cases going around. I’m in Karachi so we’re like 21 million people and we have to be so careful when we’d go to the store, nobody’s distancing even when I was at the airport. They were standing right behind you. Even when I got my first dose for the vaccine and like everyone was standing literally like this. (Puts hands togethers)

I’m not kidding. Like this literally, I am not joking. I was telling my mother, “What the hell? They’re not even distancing in line to get a vaccine.” So how do you expect them to keep six feet apart? I don’t necessarily blame people. Even last year when the pandemic initially started the prime minister told everyone not to be scared and not to worry. Then he got COVID and invited his media team to his house, and they were having a meeting, while he had COVID. So, he does stupid things like that and people do follow him. There’s a lot of people who really believe in PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice) and Imran Khan.

PD: Salena, how are you feeling right now?

SALENA: I’m actually feeling a little bit more optimistic after hearing Neesha and everybody else. I like the fact that everybody else has hope, so maybe it’ll give me some hope.

PD: That’s good to hear.

SALENA: I just don’t trust the government. But people? I could definitely trust people.

AYESHA: Yeah, I don’t know. I have a hard time trusting both at times. I have friends who are going out and about and be like, “oh yeah, but like I’m not scared anymore.” This is the response, so I think it’s a coping mechanism because you just at some point need to move on with your life. It’s hard for people like my parents who are direct caretakers of their parents and so was I at this point. I haven’t been seeing anyone. We’d go to the park every week but now they’ve shut that down.

I personally don’t think that going to the park is going to contract… like you’re not going to get a virus from being outdoors and open public spaces. If you really don’t want to spread COVID, ban weddings, ban parties, ban indoor gatherings, but at least let people meet outside and make sure people are wearing masks. Like, how hard is that?

MUHIL: It’s very hard.

AYESHA: Yeah, it is. It’s so hard. It just doesn’t make sense to me though. We went to the beach last week and there’s a police patrol throughout and there’s barricades everywhere. They’re not wearing masks, none of them do.

NEESHA: I think it’s a singular point in many people’s lives right now. It’s for me as well. I have been postponing my wedding for I don’t know how long. It’ll happen, but it might happen with 10 people. I mean I was invited to a wedding in December and it was going to be in my 14-day quarantine period. I told this person I know from college that I can’t make it. I sent a lengthy response which was like, “you know it’s people like us who are NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who bought the virus into the country, so maybe we should be more responsible.” And then no response and that’s how I lose friends.

I think the other side is also the emotional aspect. I’ll be finishing my PhD at this time, postponing my wedding at this time. I write poems to deal with all this. I’ve written so many pandemic poems. It’s a way to cope. It’s a singular time and we’re going to read about it for decades and learn about the reality for a while, and a lot of talk is going around.

The one thing that I feel I did was good was I had to go to get the RT-PCR test and we don’t have a car. My parents don’t drive, I don’t drive, so we had to book a taxi. I found out I was positive that night. I called that [taxi driver] and I was like, “I’m positive, please take care.” I was wondering how many people do that? How many people will communicate with others and let them know that this is the situation? That they might need to quarantine for a while, and I don’t know if the person quarantined, but we have to do our part.

MUHIL: I’m still feeling like trying to contend with… India is called the vaccine capital of the world and I don’t know. They were saying that India supplies 60 percent of the world’s vaccines. They still have time to approve other vaccines for public consumption and that would have helped a lot. They said the Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines were not viable for mass distribution in India because of the storage requirements because India doesn’t have so many deep freezers, but they still could have taken these practices and only kept in major cities where the major breakouts are. Major cities have these vaccine storage capacities, so they still can undo – not undo everything totally – but they can still try to reduce suffering by bringing these vaccines in.

I don’t feel hopeful because we don’t have politicians who care actually. They don’t care, so it’s only people taking care of each other and that’s what is hopeful right now.

AYESHA: That’s true, yeah. And that’s really nice of you Neesha to reach out to a driver and let him know that you had COVID because a lot of people wouldn’t do that. My mother’s friend who got COVID from this wedding, I don’t think she actually reached out to the person’s wedding she went to. I don’t think she did that and I think it’s so important.

Even vaccines, they had… What’s the Russian one? Sputnik. There were maybe 50 thousand doses that came to Pakistan earlier a couple of months ago, but it was mostly through word of mouth of how to get an appointment and so even that is a privilege itself. People who knew people in the hospital etc. would be able to get an appointment and get in. I wasn’t able to get one and it was really hard. I had to make like 30 calls to just get somebody to pick up the phone.

And even, in your ICUs at some point – like Neesha mentioned – at some point it’s even them who are suffering because there’s no spaces in the ICUs. You’re fighting for rooms, prices of oxygen cylinders are going up, it doubled even here in Islamabad and Lahore. People are looking for oxygen cylinders to be able to treat themselves at home. It’s so selfish and disgusting. Even the price of things like your masks and gloves has gone up. It’s gone up and the quality has gone down. I can actually tell just looking at the mask how many filters there are.

Just everyone wants this to be over now. It’s just too much. And the government needs to step up, but it’s probably not going to be the government. It’s going to be people but also sometimes I’m a little skeptical of that as well. Not everyone’s going to be able to do that.

MUHIL: I feel like I think other countries have to do their part now. It’s like if they want this pandemic to end, they have to end it in India and other countries. Canada still has a stockpile of AstraZeneca which they should be sharing with other countries because they’re not using it. It’s the same with U.S. and other countries like France. France has a lot of AstraZeneca that they’re not using because the country decided not to use it.

AYESHA: So, you know what frustrates me is that they ban flights from Pakistan and India, but they don’t realize that that’s not gonna stop and prevent the pandemic from being over. Like you need to actually provide vaccines and support if you want it to end. You can’t just ban them, like okay let’s just block out India and then we’ll just end our pandemic and then we can just open up flights after.

There’s still going to be people who are not going to be able to get vaccinated or won’t want to get vaccinated. You have a lot of anti-vaxxers in the world and there’s some people who are skeptical of getting a vaccine. They’re not going to get a vaccine though.

MUHIL: We think of people who don’t want to get vaccines as being anti-vaccine or skeptical of vaccines. I just heard about a person from yesterday’s who’s “oh I’m just scared of needles.” (Laughs)

AYESHA: That’s actually true though. Like my grandmother’s attendant has a phobia of needles, but I have to convince her to get it because you literally deal with an aging human being sitting right here. You cannot not get the vaccine, but of course there are people who, for example, have been addicted to drugs, who are trying to recover and don’t want to be anywhere near a needle. I completely understand.

I don’t feel hopeful because we don’t have politicians who care actually. They don’t care, so it’s only people taking care of each other and that’s what is hopeful right now.

– Muhil

SALENA: I just wanted to quickly add something on you saying about the [travel] ban on India. I don’t know if you guys are part of the Indians in Toronto group on Facebook. People are constantly asking, “ways to go to India” and “ways to come back from India to Toronto” right now even after the ban, so every time I see that group notification… you know in Hindi you say “khoon khaulata hai,” that means like you’re bloody angry.

AYESHA: Your blood boils.

SALENA: Thank you. Yes, that is the translation for it Phi. I cannot stand the people. Why are you trying to travel? And they travel from different countries. Like I know people have traveled. I know a friend who traveled from India from Delhi to Mexico, Mexico to Canada and then I know somebody who did, I think Chennai, Dubai and then Toronto. I’m like, “what is wrong with you people?” It’s a bloody pandemic.

AYESHA: It’s funny you say that though because I was supposed to fly out in April but my flight got cancelled for “operational reasons.” It was probably because there weren’t enough people on the flight to be honest, but at some point, I’m gonna have to come back. I’m still trying to figure that out because it says – if you read into the details – there is a flight ban, but you can go back via a third country. So, you would have to stay in the third country and then get tested and move on to Canada, where you get tested again, have your hotel quarantine, then go home and quarantine for two weeks.

It’s easier if you just have more direct flights to be honest. That’s actually safer than getting people to stop over somewhere else. I would love to stay here, Salena, but I have work and I have to move. I’ve slowly started to mentally prepare myself for having to spend like two to three months worth of rent on all of this. Which is not fun.

PD: We’re actually running out of time, so we’re just going to get everyone to have a final word at this time, starting with Salena.

SALENA: Thank you so much everybody for listening to what I had to say and I learned a lot today.

AYESHA: Thanks for having me part of the conversation. I know I’m on the other side of the border, but we have yet to figure out what’s going to happen here now that all the variants are here. It’s really heavy on the heart that India has to go through this but I don’t blame anyone there. I blame countries, like Muhil said, who have vaccines who can help, but aren’t willing to step up when they need to.

MUHIL: I would say I really hope people who could help do their part in next coming months, be it inside or like other governments – I don’t have any hope with Indian government really. I hope other countries help out because if they want a safer world, they need to make everybody safe.

NEESHA: I am thankful to be part of this conversation. At some point it just felt like talking to people I know about what they’ve been going through. I really, from the bottom of my heart, hope everyone’s family stays alive.

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