Sushma, a domestic worker who cooks for three houses in the city of Mumbai in western India, was unusually late for work on the first day of May.
The 31-year-old had not slept the night before. She kept tossing and turning in her bed on the floor beside a cot on which her mother-in-law snored, thinking about her brother and his family 1,500 kilometres away in the capital New Delhi.
Her brother works as a driver for an affluent family who had moved from Mumbai to New Delhi a couple of years ago, taking him with them so as to have a familiar face and dependable hand around. The last time Sushma saw him was over a year ago, before the pandemic hit and state borders closed.
Since then, she has experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. From fear laced with hope in the beginning of the pandemic, to confidence and excitement as things seemed to look up in the new year, to now just a sense of despair and acute listlessness, amid an unprecedented surge in cases.
Over the past month, Delhi has emerged as one of the major hotspots in an India that broke all records to bear the highest number of daily cases in the world. The cases rose so quickly that Delhi’s public healthcare system almost collapsed right after. Heartbreaking scenes of people scrambling for oxygen and hospital beds, crematoriums packed to capacity, dead bodies piling up in mortuaries and being cremated in makeshift public parks or even pavements, and graveyard workers working overtime, have emerged. And though Sushma’s family has been spared from the virus so far, the anticipatory anxiety is chipping away at her.
“I actually enjoyed going to work but lately, I have to just force myself to even get out of bed,” she told me. “I don’t want to make anyone panic so I keep it inside me but actually, I am always tense. Every phone call makes my heart beat faster and I just can’t seem to make good food and do my work well.”
Even to me, as a privileged Indian with greater socioeconomic access in life, Sushma’s words resonate.
My hand is heavy even as I type this but I continue out of guilt. Guilt because my loved ones have been largely safe even as so many people aren’t. I feel ashamed about my fatigue, which I tell myself I don’t deserve. But I am fatigued. I’m tempted to call my editor and ask for a leave, again something my privilege affords me unlike most of this country’s people.
I’m drifting back to the oven for some baking and finding solace in good food like I did this time last year, but now every emotion is compounded. My gratitude for safe loved ones is now gratitude times 100. My empathy for those who are suffering is now deeper. So is my grief for the people dying who I will never know and who this country reduces to just a statistic.
And there’s rage. Helpless rage at the people we voted for having failed us so miserably. I feel prickly, hot tears coming out of nowhere, and I ask myself if I’m just being dramatic because, in all honesty, I don't even understand the real grief of people who are actually suffering. I want to tell myself all my feelings are valid too but it seems just as tone-deaf as people putting up their pandemic vacation photos.
“Because we’re collectively going through these emotions, it means there is no hope coming from any quarters,” psychologist and psychotherapist Hvovi Bhagwagar told me. “This wasn’t the case last year. A year ago, we could easily find a friend with a relatively calmer state of mind. But now, everyone has their own story of horror to share with you.”
Bhagwagar’s words ring true.
Picking up the newspaper in the morning means being confronted by images of trauma and distressing statistics. Picking up the phone to scroll through mindless memes and dog videos is punctuated by desperate pleas on social media from people begging for oxygen or life-saving medicines. I take my dog out for a short walk but I count at least five ambulance sirens rushing by. Those living close to crematoriums have spoken about waking up to the acrid smell of bodies being burnt and smoke from the pyres hanging in a grey ash cloud over their neighbourhoods. Pandemic-borne issues like a loss of livelihood, a tough work-from-home situation, financial worries, and being trapped in toxic households means we were already exhausted even before the dreadful second wave erupted.
But now, Indians can’t just turn away and stir that Dalgona coffee. This time, we’re not screaming “Go, corona, go” or banging plates because our leaders asked us to, or chatting with friends in other countries to compare our lockdown lives. This time around, we’re wounded, watching in horror, finding our dignity snatched away.
Those whose loved ones are falling from COVID-19 have it way tougher in ways others could probably not even fathom.
“One of my closest friends who was just 30 and had asthma passed away but I can’t even go see his parents to offer solace,” said Burhanuddin, a school sports teacher in the south Indian city of Bengaluru. “Losing a child is unimaginable but when you haven’t been able to say goodbye or give them a proper burial around people who can support you at such a time, the grief would be just excruciating.”
The erratic vaccination drives across the country offer no confidence either.
“When trauma strikes the first time, you innately have higher tolerance because we are born with resilience. Because we do not know the extent of it, there is also hope,” said Arushi Sethi, a mental health activist and the co-founder of Trijog, an organisation for mental healthcare. “But when it persists, and there is no respite in sight, the fear turns to phobia.”
Sethi uses a term she devised called “the fermentation of fear,” and it instantly strikes a chord. Everyone I speak with has some degree of fear fermenting within them, especially because we were given a glimpse of normal life before the second wave slapped us hard. Everyone used this in-between time between the two waves to revenge party, revenge travel, and revenge socialise. We thought we were on the other side of the horror. Turns out, we were just getting into its epicentre.
“There is a cornerstone of trust that has been shaken now because the people who we thought had answers have none to offer now,” said Sethi. “When we don’t have anyone to turn to including our leaders, we turn numb. There is no correct processing of emotion and hence the level of mental exhaustion increases. This is why we feel listless and lost.”
I can still write about my feelings of listlessness and grief but for most of India, there is no vocabulary for them to even verbalise their emotions. None of India’s 22 official languages have words that mean “mental health” or “depression.”
There is also a stigma around discussing your real feelings. In 2016, a National Mental Health Survey conducted across 12 states documented a list of over 50 derogatory terms used for people suffering mental illness.
“Usually, the public believes that individuals with psychiatric illnesses are incompetent, irrational and untrustworthy consequently, they have low marriage opportunities,” said one of the participants.
India also has an extraordinarily high suicide rate. While there have been signs of change, with mental health helplines seeing more people calling in, the problem is a systemic one that will need way more efforts from those at the top. India spent just 1.8 percent of its GDP on health in 2020-21. This is among the lowest any government spends on health in the world.. Of that, less than 1 percent was allocated to mental health.
All of this comes together when an entire nation is mourning, grieving, is left traumatised or at the very least, feeling empty, just because that emotion seems somehow easier to feel at this moment. Bhagwagar believes this mental health pandemic has not even peaked yet, and we will be seeing the fallout from it only in the months to come.
I ask experts what we can do to cope with our new reality. They offer advice which seems too simplistic for me: focus on your sleep, exercise, prioritise basic self-care, help someone else out, make some kind of a routine or structure and stick to it, focus on your breathwork.
It seems too simple for such mass trauma. But maybe simple is just what we need right now.
If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues in this article, you can seek help with iCall that offers free counselling sessions from Monday to Saturday (+91-9152987821); the Vandrevala Foundation that runs a 24 x 7 helpline (+91-9999666555); or counselling NGO Aasra (+91-9820466726).
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