Transformed by a shared experience of community and lifelong friendships, Alumni of International House NY carry the I-House Spirit wherever they go. Below, a glimpse into life during pandemic in Germany.
Mita Mitra ’84, ’94 (Indian)
Occupation: Teacher, American and British Literature
“During the coronavirus lockdown, I spent my time in our apartment with my husband, Helmut. I am doing some research on the topic “Ending Child Marriages in India” for ZONTA International Club. On 8 April, we celebrated our 25th marriage anniversary in our own bubble, watching the sunset from our balcony.”
How have you or your family been impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak? One of my husband’s clients had been to Ischgl, a ski resort in Austria that was a hotspot for the pandemic in Europe, and he was infected. Someone from my art school lost her friend. So, COVID-19 is an underlying cause of anxiety, and despite all precautions, we do not know if we will be personally impacted in the coming months.
What are the most dramatic shifts in your community that you have observed?
On the day COVID-19 lockdown came into effect, the shopping area around my neighborhood was empty. The tram-stop No. 8 was deserted. The courtyard at the Indian restaurant next to my house was desolate, without the hum of regular diners. Only the grocery stores and pharmacies showed any sign of activity, with customers donning masks when entering the premises. The neighborhood was still. I could only hear the voices of my neighbors’ children, who are usually at school during the day, jumping on the trampoline in our garden.
What are you appreciating about your community; what are you missing?
The scientific community, like the Robert Koch Institute, Berlin, was incredibly engaged and offered advice to people on how to stay safe. In their turn, people were generally disciplined, thereby helping to flatten the COVID-19 curve. In addition, the government recognized the fallout from the lockdown and offered financial support to small and big businesses like Lufthansa and TUI, a tourist company.
While I appreciated the will from all quarters to save lives and sustain the economy, I missed some sort of flexibility when it came to people who were dying in hospitals. Perhaps, both the deceased and their relatives could have been allowed to see each other for the last time. Some restrictions were hard for those who had to cope with loss.
What aspect of your community has become more apparent in this difficult time?
What impresses me is the fortitude of elderly people. They wear their masks and do their own grocery shopping, knowing that they are the most vulnerable. Once all the stores were open in May, people queued up to buy bread at the local bakery and kept their distance from one another. Buying fresh “brötchen,” especially on Saturday morning, is a ritual in German neighborhoods that was disrupted during the strict lockdown phase.
What strikes you most about how your country is handling the pandemic?
What strikes me is the shared sense of responsibility amongst people, despite conflicting opinions related to lockdown measures or distribution of money. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, had reached out to people when the pandemic was at its peak. With her clear arguments, she persuaded the population to adhere to strict lockdown measures. At every step, the government itself received support from advisory groups while doctors and nurses worked around the clock.
What is the most difficult part of this experience for you?
Strangely enough, I did not find the lockdown a hardship. I may have missed sitting with a friend at a café, but otherwise, I was not overly perturbed. I went jogging in the morning and did physical training via ZOOM twice a week. In the afternoons, I sketched, worked on my research topic, or read. On the weekends, Helmut and I went for walks on Hauptstrasse, a well-known pedestrian zone in the city.
Reports about the rise in violence against women during lockdowns have been disturbing. When we had a ZOOM meeting with members of ZONTA, a speaker talked about school girls in the USA who were being abused. Also, emails were circulated in ZONTA clubs that notified us about domestic violence.
What is something positive you have taken away from this experience?
A friend’s cultural group in London, called Baithak, uploaded programs on YouTube. The group was supporting charities which were giving out masks to Indian villagers, and here in Dresden, Zontanians sewed masks for health care organizers. These acts of kindness have been inspiring amidst so much loss.
How are you staying connected to others during this time?
By sending messages via WhatsApp, talking on Skype, and writing cards in the old-fashioned way. Also, by sharing cooking recipes with an e-mail group organized by an I-House member.
Tell us about a moment when you felt particularly connected?
On 27 March, my niece, who lives in Canberra, forwarded an article from Al-Jazeera: “Panic as NY Int’l dorm orders students out amid COVID-19 lockdown.” The headline was a shock. Later, I learnt from my personal correspondences that the NY alumni had got together to raise money for current residents. At this moment, I particularly admired the alumni community for its resourcefulness. I was also told that the staff at I-House had worked long hours to find housing for residents.
How have you remained connected to the alumni community?
I have always felt close to the alumni community. I write to Pooja Merchant, who is from India and Freunde’s current President, and I communicate with other alumni in Frankfurt and Hamburg. I frequently call [a fellow alum] who is from Japan, and lives in Queensland, New Zealand. Of course, I talked to other alumni about current residents who had to abruptly leave I-House South, and I believe there were some missteps. But I doubt very much that this crisis will change how I reach out and talk to other alumni in future. To me I-House will continue to be a place that fosters a spirit of international understanding.
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