Gen Z

India’s COVID Crisis Means Its Gen Z is Missing Out on Its Best Years

The country with the largest youth population is now home to a Gen Z that is exhausted, unemployed and struggling to be hopeful about its future.
May 10, 2021, 12:59pm
india gen z young people

I graduated last year, in the middle of the lockdown, through a Google Meet call in my living room. It felt surreal to see my friends and classmates through a screen rather than in the amphitheatre of my university where we’d gather to secretly sip on Coke mixed with rum, after which we’d run to abandoned spaces within the campus to smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately for me, and thankfully for my lungs, the first lockdown in 2020 made me abruptly break up with smoking and drinking. “When all of this is over,” my friends would say this time last year, “we’ll meet again for one last drink at the amphitheatre.” 

Now, almost a year later, “when all of this is over” sounds like chasing a horizon or an unattainable goal — like reversing climate change or resurrecting animals from the Ice Age.

Today, my days are drastically different. Another day, another news of an acquaintance succumbing to COVID-19 reaches me via Twitter. The latest was a 24-year-old university student. I feel nothing but I say a silent prayer for his family and continue doomscrolling through social media, now an endless obituary. A month ago, such news would have pained me tremendously. Now though, I just feel exhausted and numb, devoid of joy or grief as I go through life’s motions.

India’s ongoing second COVID-19 wave has been nothing short of devastating. The healthcare system has crumbled while hospitals continue to run out of oxygen and beds. Fire extinguishers are being painted over and being sold as oxygen cylinders. Life-saving drugs and plasma are now a part of a thriving black market.

When cases began shooting up in late March, I felt like the “Ah shit, here we go again” meme. But how the next couple of weeks unfolded is anything but meme-worthy. The ongoing COVID-19 horror in India is something straight out of the movies. The only difference is, we don’t have a superhero to call on.

Being Gen Z is associated with hopes, dreams, a passion for change, and a love for TikTok and Reels. Out of the total youth in the world, every fifth young person resides in India. I’m one of them. India’s Gen Z, also the world’s largest adolescent and youth population, was once touted as “the world’s future”. We were the ones who were “set to change our world.” But today, we’re graduating in a shit economy, with abysmal job opportunities, unable to not just live out the best years of our life but hardly able to cope with the everyday. That’s a lot of young people who are getting a raw deal in life, not just because of the pandemic, but also because of terrible governance by people in power.

The last year made me feel older, but the second wave has left me feeling like I’ve aged a decade or two. I feel a sense of fatigue in my bones that’s hard to articulate. “I feel like my lifespan has greatly shortened, without aging,” a friend tells me. It stings, but it feels true. 

“Often during mourning, we experience a shift in our relationship with time,” Asmita Sharma, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist based in New Delhi, tells me. “To some, it feels like time has stopped and they feel frozen in time.  For many others, it can feel like life is rushing past at such a fast pace that they cannot keep up.”

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Sharma’s words resonate with me. I feel stuck and stagnant in a global pandemic. I’m constantly on the edge that I might receive an SOS call while I’m not looking at my phone and miss it. I’ve typed so many condolence messages that my phone keyboard auto-completes them for me. I want to fall asleep and wake up when all of this is over. But I worry that day will never come.

I wonder if, after losing the best years of my life to a raging pandemic at the age of 21, will I also lose my 30s to climate change? I want to be able to party and go out with my friends again without fearing that I can get the virus and pass it on to someone vulnerable. 

In March, I had plans to live and work from the Himalayas for a month. It sounded like a dream. I’d be away from pollution, in nature’s lap, and surrounded by the best hash in the world. But rising cases and growing death rates cancelled my plans. I could still go if I wanted to, but I’m scared that I will carry the virus and accidentally infect vulnerable people that might lead to a whole village dying. It sounds far-fetched and paranoid, but it’s how I feel.

When I see young people from other countries getting vaccinated and going out in public, I feel this strange sense of FOMO. My friends from the UK are preparing for June 21, when COVID restrictions will be lifted, and making plans to meet up. When I swipe through Instagram stories, it’s odd to see friends from Australia and New Zealand going about their lives like nothing ever happened. I don’t mean to sound like they should be giving a shit about us out here. They’ve had a rough year too, and they shouldn’t be shamed for their music festivals, beach tans and bar hops. I just feel sorry for myself, and scared that opportunities to succeed at work, make good money, have some fun and generally do all the stupid things that young people should be doing, are passing me by.

“I was abroad barely two months ago,” says Himani, a 23-year-old who recently returned from the UK to her home city of Lucknow in India after completing her Master’s degree. “My friends there are still living the life that I’d got used to living too, so coming back to this seems like a nightmare. But at the same time, I feel awfully guilty too, because no matter what, I'd never want to live that way while my own people are going through this much pain and suffering.”

I’m familiar with pangs of guilt for dreaming about a more luxurious life. My privilege allows me to miss my pre-COVID life. In July, I will celebrate my second birthday while in lockdown, and I am not looking forward to it at all. I hated my birthday last year despite getting sweet messages from friends and family. “For someone older, not being able to celebrate birthdays seems fine but these are important milestones for young people,” Seema Hingorrany, a Mumbai-based psychologist and trauma expert, tells me. “A lot of my younger clients report feeling guilty when they think of their lives before COVID. But that’s a very valid feeling.” 

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But there’s only so much time for that given our reality. Eventually, after receiving SOS calls from friends, and losing members of my own extended family due to COVID-19 related complications, I decided to actively help in verifying leads for hospital beds and resources, and handling SOS calls. Once, a friend’s friend reached out to me to ask for a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder in a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for his grandmother. We did everything we could, but she died. I spent the next few days grieving a stranger while knowing just her name and her oxygen saturation levels.

Some of us who have been able to drive ourselves to help with COVID relief work are feeling especially stressed, though taking the time to deal with the trauma and grief is not something everyone chooses. Shortly after her return to India, Himani started verifying COVID resources on social media and attending to emergency calls. “It was like the first day on a job you have had no training for,” she tells me over texts. One day, Himani lost four people she was searching hospital beds for. “I was miserable, I couldn’t function anymore.”

For others, the second wave led to becoming a caregiver and handling a level of responsibility they had no experience with. A 20-year-old university student from the south Indian city of Bengaluru tells me that in April, both of her parents contracted COVID and had to be hospitalised, leaving her alone to take care of her aged grandfather, her brother, and their dog. “I was managing everything alone. It was draining but what else could I do? My uncle had died a month before and I wasn’t even done grieving when my parents were hospitalised. I reached a breaking point.”

Hingorrany, the psychologist and trauma expert, says we’re in the initial stages of grief. The first stage of grief is denial and numbness, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “Young people are numb and in shock with what they’re seeing. They’ve never witnessed this level of death before,” she says. India has recorded nearly 246,000 deaths due to COVID. “The previous lockdown was irritating for people due to financial distress or moving back home with the family and feeling confined in the house,” says Hingorrany. “But this time, the complete breakdown of the healthcare system has made people feel more hopeless.” 

Foreign aid has arrived in India from over 14 countries. I should feel a little hopeful after that, but I don’t. I’ve also entered the stage of anger. I’m furious at the government and prevailing systems that let this crisis unfold. A Reuters report found that the Indian government chose to ignore warnings by scientists on the emergence of the second wave. Reading that frustrated me to no end, but also made me feel helpless about being among those who get to inherit this fucked-up world. Adults and older people will likely die before us but it’s their bad decisions and choices that we will have to live through. 

Hingorrany thinks that within a couple of weeks, our anger might manifest into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or even suicide. “People are angry at God or at the government. Seeing this level of death and distress contributes to trauma in the body and mind. Months later, we will see more PTSD symptoms emerge.” The distress is amplified by young people fearing losing their parents, and the lack of closure in COVID-related deaths.

I no longer think about the future, I’m too busy watching a country’s nightmare live-streamed before my eyes, with very little power or resources to bring about change. The rising death rates have made me hyper aware of my own mortality. It’s a terrifying thought, but the COVID fatigue has made me lose the will to live while also being afraid of dying from COVID.  

We Gen Z are expected to swim through an ocean of grief while having been trained in baby pools our whole life. We’re terrified of what will come ahead, but we’re using every last bit of our strength to just get through this.

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