Can I Keep My Husband From Visiting India Amid Its Covid Surge?
My husband and I have been married for a short time. We’re in our late 40s and are grateful to have found love; we have worked hard to understand each other deeply, especially because we were raised in different cultures: I in the United States; he in India.
The situation in India with Covid-19 is terrifying and heart-wrenching. My husband is now talking to his family once a day, as two generations are sheltering in place in one apartment outside Delhi, a center of the pandemic. His parents are vaccinated, but his sister and her family are not. As bad news pours in via FaceTime about children being orphaned or friends with both parents in the I.C.U., my husband is adamant that if his parents or sister become ill (with Covid or anything else), he will return to India to be with them. Even though my husband and I are both vaccinated, I am terrified each time he says this. In his understandably heightened state, I don’t think that he is able to see how incredibly dangerous this journey would be: to himself; to his family, whom he so wants to protect; to me (I have a chronic illness); and to our relationship.
He says that all that wouldn’t be a problem — that he would stay in a hotel so as not to add to his family’s risk level. But it’s hard for me to see how he could keep them safe without first quarantining for 10 days after flying and then going to see them, at which point any ill family members may no longer be with us. And then he would have to survive the return journey.
It doesn’t help that a friend of his recently flew back to Delhi to care for his dying mother. This friend says that it is absolutely horrible there, but there he is, being the good son and going home in a pandemic. It is no use telling my husband that tens of thousands of people have had to say goodbye via FaceTime — from as close as across the hallway — and that this devastating state of affairs is the safest (if saddest) way.
In addition, if my husband got sick in India, I doubt he would be able to count on any medical care, and may be unable to return to the United States for many weeks, or even months, if the travel ban goes through and continues. I feel this risk is real, even though my husband is a U.S. citizen. The only things we have going for us are that we are both vaccinated and that we have a place in our home where he would be able to quarantine once he returns.
I have told him that if he goes, I will ready myself for the very real possibility that he may never return. Sadly, I do not think I am being irrational in thinking this. I want to be clear, however, that I do not intend to try to take away my husband’s choice. It is horrible to feel so out of control and so unable to protect and be with beloved family members. If this is what he feels he needs to do, I will find a way to support him.
Because my husband and I are both very anxious, I am worried that we aren’t able to think through how to create a situation in which his family feels supported, my husband feels that he is connecting with his family and everyone is kept as safe as possible. I am hoping that you could suggest a few things that both of us should consider so that we can make this decision together, carefully weighing and preparing for all the risks in the calmest state possible. Obviously, we want to believe that everyone will stay healthy, but we agree that we also need to plan for the worst. Name Withheld
Thinking through your situation involves, in part, looking at the factual side of things. And here, having consulted someone with expertise in epidemiology and in the Indian health care system, I hope I can relieve at least some of your anxiety: With proper precautions, what your husband proposes to do may not be as hazardous as you fear.
It matters that he’s vaccinated and under 50. Yes, that plane trip is long, but if he’s wearing a mask on a modern aircraft that uses HEPA filters and an air-circulation system that draws in fresh air from outside, the risks aren’t great. Accordingly, he needn’t quarantine himself upon arrival.
Infection rates in India have been extraordinarily high lately; there’s a reason that the C.D.C. advises against travel there. At the same time, the general incidence of “breakthrough” Covid cases among the vaccinated appears very low — and of serious illness far lower — and it disproportionately affects seniors. Although viral variants known to be circulating in India could worsen the risk profile, experts at the World Health Organization expect that the vaccines will still provide significant protection from them. If your husband is in the company of someone sickened by Covid, he can take the standard clinical precautions, including a mask (bona fide NIOSH-certified and F.D.A.-approved N95s are now readily available in this country) and, ideally, safety goggles.
Understand the Covid Crisis in India
- What to Know: Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds, along with low vaccination rates, have added to the surge in illness and deaths in India.
- Case Counts: Experts say the true death count far exceeds official figures. This chart illustrates how known Covid cases have grown over the last few months across the country.
- Travel Bans: The U.S. has begun to restrict travel from India, and Australia has banned all incoming travel from the country, including among its own citizens.
- How to Help: Donors around the world are giving money for meals, medical expenses, P.P.E. and oxygen tanks, among other essential supplies.
Relationships have an ethics of their own, which isn’t reducible to a set of rational assessments.
The greater risk is that he’d bring infection back, not that he’d take infection there. All passengers from abroad must have a recent negative test result for Covid-19. Given the current scarcity of testing in India, it’s possible that this requirement could delay his departure. The available tests will typically be antigen tests, not the “gold standard” P.C.R. tests. To be on the safe side (and your chronic illness may be a factor here), he should take a P.C.R. test after his return, isolate himself and get a negative result before rejoining you. As for your travel-ban worries, there is reassurance in the fact that since February 2020, the United States has implemented a variety of pandemic-related travel restrictions, and none have barred U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Keeping in touch with family members and comforting those who fall sick is a widely shared human concern, one that weighs heavily with your husband. And India’s second wave has indeed been harrowing. That country’s medical system has long been frail; its public spending on health care is roughly 1 percent of its G.D.P., a fraction of what its peers spend. Even with woefully inadequate medical support, however, a great majority of Covid cases in India, as elsewhere, will resolve themselves without serious harm. That’s one reason your husband would be well advised to comply with the travel guidance from the C.D.C.: It isn’t as if the relative who gets sick amid the pandemic has been given a death sentence. And then, as you suggest, our online era has enabled remote forms of intimacy once unimaginable. I have siblings in Namibia and Nigeria, countries that lack the health care resources many of us take for granted in the West, and count it a blessing that I can be with them, virtually, in sickness and health.
What’s striking is the symmetry of your mutual anxieties. If you fear the worst should your husband fly to Delhi, your husband fears the worst should a relative fall ill. Yet relationships have an ethics of their own, which isn’t reducible to a set of rational assessments. Love must be responsive to unreason. Your husband should take account of your own fears and needs, then, just as you should take account of his. In the end, however, the wisdom of preparing for the worst has its limits when — all things considered — it keeps us from doing what’s best.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include ‘‘Cosmopolitanism,’’ ‘‘The Honor Code’’ and ‘‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.’’ To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)
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