As of Thursday, the Indian Health Ministry is reporting a record 412,262 new cases and 3,980 new deaths in the past 24 hours. More than 21 million people in India have been infected, and the death toll has surpassed 230,000.
The dire situation is hitting close to home for Indian international students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“It’s apocalyptic,” doctoral student Kamalendu Ghosh says. “The news of the dead is kind of being normalized right now. So I was affected by this news a week ago, but now I’m expecting it.”
Ghosh says he has been getting eerie messages about the situation in India, including what is being done with bodies in Delhi.
“I know a few friends that, if they go to their rooftops, they can smell ash,” Ghosh says. “Indians cremate – they burn [dead] bodies. Delhi is already a polluted city, but right now there is a layer of ash on the rooftops and that ash is from the cremation of the bodies.”
For graduate student Debsree Pande, all the notifications coming from India have damaged her mental health.
“I open up my Instagram and WhatsApp and it’s very depressing and it’s very devastating,” Pande says. “I myself [am] in a hopeless state.”
Because supplies, particularly oxygen, are running out in India, both Ghosh and Pande have asked themselves how they can help — but there is only so much they can do from thousands of miles away.
Pande has tried to purchase oxygen on Amazon, but she says she has no idea where it goes once it has shipped. Recently, the Indian government eased restrictions on individuals from abroad sending oxygen concentrators as gifts to relatives in India.
Pande and Ghosh say the situation in India has made it difficult for them to focus on homework, studying and projects in their final days of the semester.
“On a normal day, I would work only on my prelims and on nothing else,” Ghosh said. “But I think now, I spend 3 to 4 hours helping my people there.”
Students like Ghosh and Pande will also face issues once the spring semester is over. On Tuesday, the Biden administration enacted travel restrictions for foreign nationals coming from India; some exceptions include American citizens and lawful permanent residents. This means students cannot leave the country or else they would not be able to return until further notice.
International students are granted F-1 visas, which allow them to attend colleges and universities in the United States. F-1 visas usually last five years but if a student is not done with their studies within those five years, they are still legally allowed to stay in the country, so long as their school extends their I-20 form.
In Ghosh’s case, he can legally stay in the U.S., however, his visa is set to expire May 25. Therefore, if he leaves the country, he would not be able to return. He has tried to get the visa renewed at the Indian Consulate but has faced challenges scheduling an appointment.
“I was planning on getting it renewed since last October,” he says. “I [scheduled] a May appointment, and now it’s closed again. And even if they reopen again, I don’t know when I would get an appointment.”
Ghosh says he hasn’t seen his family since 2019.
Pande says she understands there are risks involved in going back to India, but says she’s willing to take them.
“Given the choice, I would still want to go back home because at least I am physically there,” she says. “Because being here and being mentally there is more worse, I believe.”