I never expected living in Boston as a graduate student would be easy. I quickly realised that I had to make compromises every day. This was important, because unlike many other students, I was a foreign student who had to learn the American way of life, in addition to learning about how economic social policy works. I can safely say that I learned modestly about the intricacies of political economy, but I am yet to fully understand the American perspective – especially the one that is on full display since COVID-19 started.
First, the graduate parties stopped. This was a bit of a relief since I am not the “networking” type and can’t keep my gregariousness mode active on all weeknights. Then, meetings at the office started getting cancelled. Lastly, plans that were in motion for weeks – to meet and hang out – slowly evaporated.
Then, the lockdowns started.
Growing up in Kashmir, a region that is often credited with having the highest number of political and military lockdowns in the world, the coronavirus lockdown reminded me of uneasy feelings buried in my memory.
Lockdowns are not new to me. In high school, I had to sit for final exams which spanned over three months for a total of five subjects thanks to curfews. During the first year of college, our campus was closed for five months due to more curfews and violence. Again, in 2016, after a flare up of political disputes in the Valley, our schools and colleges remain closed for months.
Just last year, while I was visiting home in August, the Indian government took another major decision that led to the removal of semi-autonomous status of Kashmir. Since then, people in Kashmir have more or less lived in a lockdown – often without access to basic communication modalities. Even now, an internet connection with decent speed continues to be elusive in Kashmir.
When the lockdowns in the US started, I had a feeling of what was coming next. Such measures – while necessary due to the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases – often lead to an immense toll on the mental health of a population.
In the US, since COVID-19 started, there has been an increase of 50% in the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety. Given how COVID-19 affects vulnerable and at-risk communities at a much higher rate, one can only imagine – in horror – the prevalence of mental health issues in these communities.
As a Kashmiri who has spent enough time in lockdown mode, I have learnt a few lessons along the way – lessons I believe would be helpful to my American friends.
The first lesson is to never lose hope. This might seem complicated, particularly when the world around you is changing and does not seem to make much sense – but this is precisely when we need hope; hope for a better tomorrow.
One way to feel hopeful, I have observed, is to build connections with people around you. These connections need not be established relationships. In Kashmir, we did this by hanging out with neighbours every morning, because we purchase bread together from a community baker, who bakes fresh rotis straight from the tandoor. We would sit at the shop and talk about daily trivialities, which would help us appreciate small things in life, and keep us hopeful for the future. In the US, one can do this by making small talk with people at the groceries (always have a mask on) or set up an office or community Zoom/Skype meeting to see each other.
Also read: Missing the Songs of Silence in Ladakh
The second lesson I have learned is to build solidarity. This helps us empathise with one other and develop more grounded relationships, which are essential for improving the mental health of a people. In Kashmir, every family has suffered in one way or another – we all know that. In the same manner, this pandemic has affected each one of us in one way or another. This is why building a community that empathises with each other and invests in each other’s well-being is so vital.
The third lesson is to look for opportunities where we can assist the vulnerable among us. We know that COVID-19 has a severe impact on those who are elderly, immunocompromised, or have underlying medical conditions.
To address this, we could invest in processes and programmes where the young and healthy (while taking all precautions and following public health guidelines) can assist in delivering food, medications, or even spare some time to provide company (over the phone or internet) to those who may be lonely. Kashmir has taught me that in order to withstand difficult situations, the most important resource we have is each other.
Unlike Kashmir, the people in the US have access to infrastructural resources that people in developing countries can only dream of. It is time that Americans start using these resources to reinvest in their communities, perhaps taking cue from this friendly Kashmiri who lives among them.
Javaid Iqbal, who is from Kashmir, is a Global Fellow at Brandeis University and currently lives in Boston.
Featured image credit: Reuters