By Wilf Butler
London, United Kingdom
Jathin Kumar was sitting his Grade 12 exams when he first heard about a novel ‘CoronaVirus’ spreading around the world.
“No one knew it would become such a huge thing,” he said to me, rolling his eyes at his own naivety.
Then on March 21, 2020, all schools in Jathin’s home city of Hyderabad, India were ordered to close. The busy, polluted city of almost ten million people came to a standstill.
“Suddenly, school said ‘Go take a holiday!’” he said, grinning at me on our Zoom call.
But for him, and countless others, the pandemic has been no holiday.
Sara Singh was in the same school year as Jathin when schools were shut down. “In the beginning it was shocking. I thought that after 12th grade I would get a chance to go out, and then suddenly this lockdown happened, you had to just sit at home,” Sara reminisced to me.
When lockdowns first arrived, these young adults looked on the bright side. “The pollution [was] reduced. We got huge amounts of time to spend with our families,” Jathin remembered.
Sara’s best friend, Mounika Nagandla, thought some time off school might be an exciting opportunity to go out with friends or relax at home. “I thought: maybe we won’t have to write our exams; that’ll be good,” Mounika said, sighing.
It didn’t take long for boredom to set in.
“There’s no personal interaction with friends,” Jathin said, “I miss gossiping with friends. It’s so different: talking online [versus] sitting together.”
Jathin, Sara and Mounika are all in their first year at university in Hyderabad. Like most, they don’t approve of online learning. Mounika shared that she thinks it’s a “waste."
“We used to have lab sessions, we used to go to college,” Mounika said, but now “everyone turns off their mic; they watch something else. They don’t question what’s going on.”
These three are lucky to have any online learning at all; around 76% of Indian households don’t have the internet infrastructure needed for home learning, according to a 2020 UNICEF report.
Mounika and Sara used to love playing on the school basketball team. It was their favourite hobby, and they would often compete in inter-house tournaments. Separated in a pandemic, basketball is now a distant luxury.
“We miss it so badly,” Sara said. “During this whole lockdown, we can’t play.”
Jathin also loves sports. “From childhood, I wanted to become a cricketer,” he shared. But with a year out of practice, he no longer sees this as a possibility. He’s now opted for a more pragmatic path; after completing his degree, he’ll try to make a career for himself in India’s rapidly growing business world.
With hobbies, in-person school and friends stripped away from them, the mental wellbeing of India’s young people has taken a blow. Jathin reflected, “Sitting alone, there are more negative thoughts, more overthinking.”
“The pandemic has really affected mental health badly. You’re alone all the time, thinking [about] what’s going to happen in life and worrying about [the] future,” Sara added.
When asked if he feels he can talk openly with others in his community, Jathin said his friends are all open about the struggles they’ve faced in the pandemic, commenting, “I’m an open guy. I talk to my friends about my things."
Mounika, however, was critical of the way Indian society treats mental health. “It’s not given importance in India,” she said.
Elderly generations, she told me, are more conservative: “They say ‘Oh if you sleep, if you eat properly, you’ll be fine!’” Sara said she has often felt like she can’t talk openly about her mental health, particularly with her parents. “I had to do what they were asking me to do and [live] up to their expectations. But finally I decided, no, I really need to talk about it,” Sara told me. On the bright side, Sara shared that speaking with her parents seems to have made them more open.
Mental health is not the only thing being stigmatized in Indian society right now—so is COVID-19 itself. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 in India have given disturbing testimonies of social ostracism. Many people seem to fear infected people more than they fear the infection itself.
When Mounika and her father tested positive for COVID-19 a few months ago, they were almost completely cut off from those around them. “It was disturbing,” Mounika shared. “We couldn’t tell anyone that we actually had it.”
Even after Mounika recovered and was no longer infectious, she still felt she couldn’t fully re-integrate back into her community. “You weren’t invited out. They’re scared of you because you had it once,” she explained.
Before the pandemic, Sara had plans to go to university in Canada. When travel halted last spring, she enrolled at a university in Hyderabad, studying business. For now, all she wants is to see the inside of that university. She has been told in-person teaching will resume this summer.
“I really need to go to college. See what college actually is like,” said Sara. “I’m still excited. At least I’ve got two years to enjoy college.” She still has plans to go to North America, this time to do a Master's, either in the United States or Canada.
Mounika isn’t sure what she wants to do in the future, but completing a degree and finding a career seems to be the inevitable path for Jathin, Mounika, Sara, and other young adults like them. It isn’t clear how free they feel to choose that path, nor how enthusiastic they are about it.
The pandemic has left virtually no one in India untouched, and many young adults have experienced loss firsthand. I first met Jathin when he was in London on a school trip in 2018. He and his classmates were visiting with their teacher, Mukesh. Mukesh was friendly and youthful. He’s since died of COVID-19.
After going through school and the first year of university during the pandemic, India’s young people, like young people everywhere, have been blindly forced into adulthood without the necessary life experience.
In Sara’s Zoom background, a pink stuffed bear sits on her bed— I wonder if she would call herself an adult just yet.