Meanwhile, although the pandemic is very much still not over in the United States, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about where things are headed: Almost a third of all Americans are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, allowing people to return to some semblance of normal life. If vaccination rates hold, President Joe Biden has promised that by July 4, the U.S. will “begin to celebrate our independence from the virus.” But for Indian Americans, a majority of whom are immigrants, the widely divergent realities unfolding in India versus the U.S. is disorienting and even guilt-inducing. Seeing your loved ones suffer is hard enough, but when your own situation is so full of hope, it can be tough to know how to feel.
In early April, Akanksha Cruczynski, a 31-year-old filmmaker, was excited. She had just received her second vaccine dose, her graduate-thesis film had just won an award, and Chicago, where she lives, was slowly opening up. But her celebration was cut short: New Delhi, where she grew up and her family lives, went on lockdown as cases started to soar. A cousin in India tested positive for COVID-19. On social media, her high-school friends pleaded for medical supplies, ventilators, and oxygen. All the excitement was suddenly gone. She told me that she “felt ill” seeing Americans walking around without masks and dining indoors at restaurants. “I felt like I was betraying my country by being here,” she said. Cruczynski has been depressed, compulsively following headlines about what’s happening in India, tweeting requests for help, and FaceTiming with her mother and sister every chance she gets. “I feel paralyzed by powerlessness,” she said.
Ghazal Gulati, a 32-year-old who lives in Pasadena, California, has spent the past year worrying about what would happen if a family member in India fell sick and she and her husband needed to travel home. After she got vaccinated, she eagerly began planning a trip to visit her parents in Noida, just outside Delhi. Now she has put that dream on hold indefinitely. Then last week, a close family friend, just 35 years old, died from COVID-19. “We relived 2020 in one week, all over again,” she told me. “On the flip side, to see everybody else around you be so normal—it feels so unreal.”
As family members in India face the catastrophe, relatives who have lived through waves of the devastating pandemic in America are trying to offer emotional and psychological support for what lies ahead. Shindé, who was based in New York last spring, has been remembering the weeks when the city became the world’s epicenter. Days before her aunt Vijaya’s death, Shindé texted her: “You’re going to get better and dance at our wedding party 💃🏾💃🏾💃🏾!!” On the same day, she texted her mom in India that Vijaya might not pull through. “We saw this in NYC,” she wrote. “There were signs of improvement, and they just slipped.”