There’s another side-effect of COVID: survivor’s guilt

When you have been away from your home country for years, the concept of home starts to blur. You neither fully fit in to your new country, nor do you completely belong to the country of your birth any longer because you feel as a misfit every time you visit “home.” This is a shared feeling among generations of migrants, constantly struggling to relate and fit in.

I moved to Australia from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates a few years ago, however this was not my first international move. I had migrated to Dubai from Pakistan, and had lived there for a couple of years before settling in Sydney. However, soon Perth, Western Australia (also known as Boorloo, its  Indigenous Noongar name) became my new home – a home away from the country of my birth. 

Besides my friends and family back in Pakistan, I feel a tangible connection with its land, water and sky. I am a native of that land, but the boundaries of home are as blurry for me as any first-generation immigrant. I often find myself thinking: Where does one truly belong? Which place gets our loyalty if we had to choose? Where does our heart ache to be? In my view, this is the most common set of conundrums for migrants in any part of the world.  

Yet, in times of utter despair such as the ongoing pandemic, the blur started to clear out a bit. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have found myself thinking of my homeland more than usual; and a fortiori, as it suffers I miss Pakistan even more these days. At times, my emotions take me to an extent where I feel guilty for living in one of the safest countries in the world, although we went through harsh lockdowns as well. 

 

In Australia, Perth has been particularly lucky. There has only been one hard lockdown since the start of the pandemic. Still, I would be lying if I said the lockdown did not affect me. Every day I wanted to be out in the open, feeling the essence of the thriving city, which now looked like a ghost town. The lockdown restrictions started to ease sooner than we had expected as WA was doing exceptionally well in dealing with the spread. With strict border restrictions and cautious measures taken by the government, soon we reached the point when there was no community transmission across the State. It was a moment of relief and pride for every WA resident, including myself. However, I failed to exclusively feel the joy.

As my city came back to life, I got the news from Pakistan that my only brother had caught the virus. I could no longer cherish the safe blanket I was wrapped in here in Australia. All I could think of was my brother’s health, imagining the worst possible scenarios. I  realised that worry never hits you until it hits home. 

Luckily, my brother recovered quickly. But, the news of more people I knew catching the virus, and some succumbing to it, has not stopped. Like most under-developed countries, Pakistan severely lacks adequate health facilities for a population of over 220 million. I keep reminding myself how the pandemic has tested the fulsome healthcare capacities of some developed countries like the US and the UK. It feels like my home country stands no chance. 

Even more, for a huge section of the underprivileged, poverty-stricken population in Pakistan with absolutely no support from the government, the several porous lockdowns have taken away their chances of daily livelihood, further deteriorating their living conditions. 

As I see my country-people dying on all sides, a vaccines-for-all scenario is still a far-fetched dream. As of 6 May 2021, around 3.32 million people in Pakistan have been vaccinated. This is just 0.8% of its entire population of 216 million. Luckily enough, I live in the developed part of the world, and sooner or later I will be vaccinated. However, it is going to be a long way before I start feeling relieved for the people back in Pakistan, and start enjoying their vaccine selfies from Australia and the other parts of the world I see shared on social media. 

Every call I get from Pakistan triggers me into a guilt trip. My initial feeling of relief over WA’s lockdown ending has since turned into mournful guilt and complex grief. Every cup of coffee, every slice of cake, every trip to a café or a restaurant, every catch-up with friends at a community park or a library is accompanied by, and further entrenches, my survivor’s guilt.

I read that survivor’s guilt used to be a condition in its own right, but has now officially become a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be the gateway to depression, anxiety, hopelessness and suicide. The irony is that this distinction is not so clear, as the trauma I experience is not mine but something I live vicariously. 

 

Scrolling through my social media feed becomes emotionally overwhelming at times, as I watch many of my close friends and their family members in Pakistan, and some in India, posting on groups asking either for blood plasma donation or prayers. This never fails to give me that sinking feeling - one that none of us can ever get used to. There is this constant inner conflict where my heart aches for my fellow Pakistanis, but my mind feels at peace for being safe and healthy in my new home town. I live in a paradox, where at times my heart and mind come to war with each other. Should I feel ashamed for being safer than so many others?  After facing so much grief, will I ever be the same person again?

The isolation of survivor’s guilt sometimes takes me over completely. I am the only member of my family sitting safely, oceans away, while everyone else lives in a constant fear of death and disease. I might survive this pandemic, but the wounds of my survivor’s guilt will live on for the years and decades to come. 

One of the recommended antidotes for survivor’s guilt is to focus on gratitude and find a way to retain a sense of hope. I think instead perhaps Fredrick Nietzsche was right to say that hope is the worst of all evils as it prolongs human torments. Hope lengthens our suffering.. And as the developed world takes their turn of the vaccine first, my hope for Pakistan stands in sharp contrast with the reality, prolonging suffering even further. 

I speak for all the migrants, who like me are living in relatively safe countries, when I say that we yearn for our homelands to heal. And, in despair, I’ve learned a truth about what home is - it is what our heart aches for. 


Further resources

Read more about mental health and support services:

Dealing with the India COVID-19 crisis: Tips to help you sleep when you’re worried

India’s COVID-19 Crisis: How to Support Indian-Australians

Seeing COVID Hurtle from a Distance


Saadia Ahmed is Perth-based freelance writer/blogger. She tweets @khwamkhwah.

Both images in this article have been used under a Creative Commons licence.

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