As a graduate student in America, a Friday night typically involves meeting friends and colleagues at the local bar. This week, it amounted to interacting with a matrix of faces on a computer screen. Under quarantine, we were in our houses, logged onto Zoom and trying to continue our social lives as usual, even though our futures had fundamentally changed in the past month. We joked, talked about TV shows and kept the conversation light-hearted. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on us. We live a few minutes away from each other’s house. Technology makes distances shorter. But only being able to talk to your neighbours through a computer had somehow widened them.
Some colleagues who were in the field had to decide whether to stay or leave in the middle of their projects. Some were able to reach home. Others are stuck in foreign countries for the foreseeable future and don’t know when they’ll be able to leave. Advanced PhD students who were supposed to complete their dissertations face a precarious job market because of a hiring freeze imposed by many universities and colleges in the face of economic uncertainty. Some have been separated from their partners and families who live in different countries, unsure when they will be able to see them next. Like many foreign students, I had to make the complicated decision about staying in America or returning home. Many of us fear going back home and putting our parents or grandparents at risk of exposure. There are worries about the closing of borders and whether one would be allowed to return to the US once they leave. However, there is the recognition that people in our position are still lucky. Our jobs can be done remotely, and our universities offer us medical insurance. Like India, in the US too, it is the working class that has been hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis.
In recent years, young people have shown tremendous maturity and leadership in social movements around the world. The anti-gun movement in the US, the anti-CAA protests in India or the worldwide climate strikes. Symptomatic of a generational rift, the younger generations have blamed older ones for not taking action. The young, in turn, have been accused of being too radical and wanting change too fast. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted yet another generational divide. As the pandemic spread, some young people showed callousness, refusing to practise social distancing in the mistaken belief they are immune to the disease. They congregate in large groups, throw parties, travel for spring break and go into public places. Other students, meanwhile, are struck with severe anxiety and depression, as the crisis has thrown their lives into chaos. For a generation that face pressures from student debts and climate change uncertainties, this global pandemic has made their lives even more precarious.
My grandmother recently turned 87. She has lived through wars, famines and riots. Through all these calamities and crises, she has seen people help each other by opening their home to strangers, providing food and support. She finds the real tragedy of this pandemic in its core: people must stay away from each other to stay safe. But in the midst of the crisis, stories of hope have also emerged. In the American town where I live, people have organised groups through social media, sewing protective masks at home for first responders, delivering groceries to the elderly, organising food drives, collecting money for people in service jobs who rely on tips. Local businesses are giving out free food to those in need and groups are organising to put pressure on local politicians to act in the community’s best interests. These are mirrored by inspiring stories from all over the world. Communities have come together to show leadership and bravery even as governments are often failing in that regard.
It’s hard to look for something positive in the middle of a global pandemic. It has, however, forced us all to slow down and given us the opportunity to ring up friends and loved ones we don’t get time to call. I’ve been spending a lot of time video-calling my parents back in India, even though they are yet to understand how to operate the front camera on their phones. That will be a lesson I will save for the next time I’m able to see them.Ujjainee Sharma is doing her PhD at Cornell University, New York