Masaraat Asif

Masaraat Asif is a rising sophomore in Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in the Class of 2023, intending to major in International Politics. Her family is originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

About the Collection in Masaraat's own words: 

My project was focused on the impact of COVID-19 on my grandmother who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Focusing on her unique perspective as an older woman who has experienced several crises as a result of living through the birth of a nation, I wanted to understand how the current pandemic either mirrors or differs from her past. Especially due to the dense urban living situation, the inadequate healthcare system, and the frailty of her old age, I felt particularly worried about my grandmother's wellbeing throughout the pandemic. These series of interviews throughout April 2020 with my grandmother are meant to reflect her personal stories of the stress and uncertainty caused by a public health crisis. The last interview in my archive was conducted with my grandmother's brother, who shared his thoughts on how COVID-19 is affecting businessmen in Bangladesh.

Interview #1 - Nanu (Grandmother)

This interview was conducted with my grandma (Nanu) who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 17th, 2020 on Zoom. The interview consists of questions and answers about her experience with COVID-19 and comparing it to previous crises that she has lived through. I conducted the interview in Bengali, with my uncle and mother present to help with translation. Below, I have taken notes in English about her responses to the questions that I asked her. The questions I asked her are italicized and underlined. Her responses are recorded in the non-italicized font. Quotation marks represent translations of direct quotes. 

  • How does COVID-19 compare to prior experiences?

    • “The worst of all is coronavirus.” “I can’t go anywhere or get updates on anyone.” She explains people are dying and being buried without proper burial practices and rushed into a grave.

  • How does COVID-19 compare to Cholera or the Bangladeshi Liberation War?

    • To my grandma, war seems less fear-inducing than coronavirus because there is nowhere to go to seek refuge as there was during war.

  • Have you ever seen anything like this [COVID-19] before when you were younger?

    • My grandma talks about the fear and large amount of death during the Cholera outbreak. She also mentions smallpox and the death and lack of burial services then. 

  • Why do you fear this more than what you have experienced this before?

    • My grandma explains that now, there is nowhere to go, you cannot visit your loved ones. 

  • Do you think the government is properly supporting you and providing you with good information?

    • My grandma says she feels good about the government’s response, but she elaborates that the people in Bangladesh do not listen to the government. For example, one of her grandkid’s aunt brought bananas for her, and my grandma said she was so scared that she didn’t even look at her relative who brought bananas and was so shocked by her lack of caution.

  • How has your daily life changed?

    • How has cleaning changed? “After 3, I don’t leave my room. I stay in my room and pray.” 

  • Do you fear more for yourself or for your kids, grandkids outside of Bangladesh?

    • My grandma says she thinks the most about my cousin who recently married a year ago and lives alone with her husband in New Jersey while the rest of her family is in Dhaka.

  • I want to hear more about the Cholera outbreak. How old were you, who were you with, and what changes came about?

    • My grandma says she was 13. She said she remembers in the mornings, someone with a microphone would announce who had passed.

  • My grandma mentions talking with her brothers about coronavrius. “What will happen to the country, we’re not sure.” 

  • Do you think it’ll get worse in Dhaka than what you’ve seen on TV in other countries?

    • My grandma thinks that since Ramadan is coming, it will get better. This stuck out to me as an example of older generations’ trust in faith. Yet, she also explains that other people have said that it will get worse.

  • My grandma talks about how right now it is very empty in Dhaka, with less cars people in the streets than before. She is also nervous about the possibility of “opening the country up” or easing social distancing measures, and how that could lead to public spaces becoming very crowded once again.

Interview #2 - Nanu (Grandmother)

On April 24th, 2020, I interviewed my grandmother (Nanu) again after our previous interview a week ago. She answers questions about her experience dealing with COVID-19 while in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and by this point, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun so my grandma has been fasting daily. The interview is conducted in Bengali, with my mom present to help with translating between my grandma and myself when needed. Below, I have taken notes in English about her responses to the questions that me and my mom asked her. The questions I asked her are italicized and underlined. Only her responses are recorded in the non-italicized font. Quotation marks represent translations of direct quotes.

  • She expresses a general fear of Coronavirus at the beginning.

  • What is your daily routine?

    • She answers: prayer, reading Quran, watching the news, shower, cooking, talking to domestic workers to coordinate household chores.

  • What is different from before?

    • There is an anxiety about “where coronavirus can come from” (what I understood to be general paranoia about how easily the disease can spread). Now she only talks on the phone to relatives, rather than meeting in person up as usual. She cannot go outside and always feels full of thoughts and anxieties.

  • What do you think about?

    • “If I die of coronavirus, I won’t be able to see you all”

  • Do you move around more in the house?

    • How has home life changed? She now cleans groceries at least three times before putting them in the fridge. There is more cleaning in the house and increased hand washing among everyone. There is less movement in and out of the house by domestic workers who used to leave often to get groceries, run errands, etc.

  • How will this Ramadan be different?

    • There was more of a joy before, like excitement about breaking the fast with family. Now, siblings, children, other family cannot come join at my grandma’s house for dinner.

  • A brother of my grandmother’s has become sick and paralyzed, but my grandma cannot visit him because of COVID-19. My grandma describes him as saying, “Please come see me, within a few days I will be dead. You won’t be able to see me anymore, don’t wait because of COVID-19”. “He cries on video chat”, my grandma says. She expresses regret that she cannot see him yet she also knows that their family must keep distance from him in order to stay healthy, and he does not seem to properly understand that.

  • How does Coronavirus compare to crises from your younger days, such as the Cholera outbreak or the Bangladeshi Liberation war?

    • “I was young during cholera, people were just crying.” There was a fear during the war about my grandma’s children and where to seek refuge. Grandma says there is no fear like now from coronavirus; she has more fear because of her old age and preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

  • After speaking about age in relation to coronavirus, during previous crises (cholera outbreak, war), how old were you? Who did you live with? How were those experiences different?

    • She was 11-12 during the cholera outbreak and just stayed inside. None of her family members were affected, but one of my grandma’s husband’s brothers died. During the Bangladeshi Liberation war, my grandma was older and had children. At the time, they lived in Kishoreganj, a district in Dhaka, and there was a fear that the army was advancing on the city, so my grandma and her family left town and went to the countryside. After riding a boat for three days, they found refuge in Sylhet. My grandma had seven children at the time, the youngest being my mother. 

  • How has food changed?

    • No problems as of right now, but during war, there were many insecurities with food. They used to fish from the river and cook them. My grandma stayed in a two-story house in the countryside, and watched boats pass by as other people fled during the war. While there was fear then, she feels there is more fear now during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • My grandma says that she anticipates that circumstances will worsen, such as more difficulties in finding food.

  • Do you think your government is properly supporting you? What will happen if food runs out?

    • My grandma says she doesn’t believe she will receive any food aid from the government because of income level. 

  • You often say that the people in Bangladesh do not obey social distancing orders. Do you think that has changed in the past days?

    • My grandma says people still do not listen, rickshaw drivers are still out in the streets. “If we don’t drive rickshaws, my kids cannot eat,” they say. My grandma says that they don’t understand, that there is no other option for poorer citizens. “People say they won’t die from coronavirus, they will die from not eating.” 

  • My grandma has been drinking lots of hot water according to what she sees on TV. 

  • “People who don’t understand do not fear.” There is less worry about surviving COVID-19 for people who already struggle daily to eat.

Interview #3 - Grandmother's Brother

On April 29th, 2020, I completed my final interview in my archiving COVID-19 project. This time, I interviewed my grandmother’s brother who also lives in Bangladesh and works as a business owner. He shares his thoughts from the perspective of his job and his general thoughts about the pandemic in Dhaka, especially during Ramadan. The interview is conducted in Bengali, with my mom present to help translate between him and I when needed. Below, I have taken notes of what he says in English to the best of my ability. My questions are italicized and underlined and my summaries/translations of his responses are in plain text.

  • Generally, how has your experience been?

    • Irritable and uncomfortable. By staying home, people are annoyed but are still doing it for other people. Workers are staying home much more than they’re used to, which is tough, but necessary.

  • How have home conditions changed?

    • Adjustments include doing business over the telephone, such as giving instructions to workers to head to the bank for business. Although, the frequency of going to the bank for business has decreased. Nobody is going to anyone’s house. People watch TV, YouTube, and are practicing religion with a greater intensity than before. We have been contacting friends who we haven’t spoken to in a while. With Ramadan, people have more on their mind than usual. The hard part is, everything is closed. You can’t visit anyone who’s sick or who has passed. So we just pray that everyone stays safe.

  • So, when you go outside, as if to do business at the bank, how does it feel?

    • I don’t go to the bank, my employees do.

  • How will this Ramadan feel different than before?

    • Other years are definitely different. During Ramadan, there is usually more of a happiness and festivities. Breaking the fast together, eating suhoor, taraweeh prayers are usually special. We used to have iftaar parties, but now it feels silent.

  • How does your experience with coronavirus compare with crises from before? Such as the cholera outbreak or smallpox? Or from during The Bangladeshi Liberation War?

    • Cholera and smallpox were long ago. When we were young, we saw it happen for 7-15 days. Some people died.

    • I was an eyewitness of the war and the Bangladesh famine (of 1974) as a first-year student. War had a bit more of a hope of victory, although it was a time of hardship. During the liberation war, I was not directly involved but I gave support. I didn’t realize that a nation would become independent in just nine months. People were in a lot of fear about being kidnapped by the Pakistani army or by the Razakar (known as traitors in Bangladesh). Young women had a particular fear. Awami League (a major political party in Bangladesh) lead the liberation movement in Bangladesh. It felt like a miracle that the country actually became independent. The Indian Army joined us in the war and helped us win independence. We moved as a family and went to small villages or rural areas to hide. Finding food was a difficulty, because there was very little. Moving around, even just to get water, was tough. It was a very uncertain time, whether about where to go or what to eat. But finally, we won independence. 

    • Now, Coronavirus is even more uncertain. Although it has calmed down in China, it is still a big deal in other countries. It isn’t ending. People are not following lockdown orders from the government. There is a difference of thought among people; some claim lockdowns, masks, or hand washing won’t do anything. People won’t even believe in basic prevention.

    • They have shut down prayers and we cannot go to the mosque. The hard part is that so many people are going to the grocery store or the bank and crowding around, so why can’t we pray in the mosque? It is even harder because it is Ramadan, our holy month. But we are hoping for the best, like for a miracle to free us from coronavirus.

  • During the war, there were food insecurities. Do you think the same will happen with coronavirus, whether with you or other people?

    • Not yet, I think. But prices will go up. Supplies will become shorter. Rice is our main food. This season the rice crop was very good, so if it properly stored and distributed, we should be ok. There should not be a food crisis. This is my personal opinion. Like our Prime Minister said schools or colleges will be closed until September, which is a long time period. If that happens, there might be some struggles. From the point of view of a businessman, not just in Bangladesh, but in the whole world, business is being destroyed. 

    • Business is interconnected, whether international or domestic. International is connected with other countries, whereas domestic with various industries. Production is key. If you can’t find raw materials, you cannot produce. The big industries in our country use raw materials from elsewhere. Garments are the main industry in Bangladesh, but there’s others like jute or fish. I think everything is being destroyed. In the case of a cyclone or a tsunami, the business has to be reset. It feels like after coronavirus, everything will need to be reset, but I’m not sure how much. 

  • What kind of reset will be needed do you think? Does the government have to provide?

    • The government has already started. All industries are export-oriented are given incentives (loans). We have a garments factory where more than 2,000 people work. To give workers salaries, governments have provided incentives with low-interest rates. It’s for the workers, not for other staff, like supervisors, quality control managers, safety managers, etc. For them, we have to provide their salaries. At a certain time, the business owner will have to pay the loan back to the government. Hard days are ahead, I’m sure. More for business owners than for workers and staff. 

  • For now, do you have any other stories or thoughts about coronavirus?

    • At first, we did not want to believe in coronavirus. How does a virus spread so vastly? We didn’t bother. It started as an epidemic and became a pandemic. I’ve seen that in our country, many are donating food and stuff to poorer people who rely on a day-to-day income. Coronavrius is much more painful for them. Many kind-hearted people have been delivering food to their homes. I myself did that in my own area. I gave 550 families 15-days worth of food, things like rice, lentils, potatoes, oil, soap. On the other hand, there’s a small percentage that has been taking advantage of the situation and stealing donations. But humanity is even greater among us.

  • Who in Bangladesh will be impacted the most?

    • Those who live from day-to-day. Rickshaw drivers, street vendors, clothes sellers. They don’t have food, yet they cannot ask for it. There’s so many, so how will they all be helped? But people are still trying, the government is still trying. Really poor people will receive food donations, and after they spend seven-days’ worth, they don’t know what to do.

© 2020 Dr. Ananya Chakravarti

Thanks to Rajeev Kozhikattuthodi, Eshan Gupta, and Jaron Berman for their help in building this website.

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