A BENDIGO teacher has found himself in a "surreal" situation, after following his lifelong dream to work in India.
Longtime Bendigo Senior Secondary College teacher Nick Freeman flew into India in January, to take up an international school position in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
At the time, the country was recording low number of COVID-19 cases.
On Friday it recorded more than 414,000 new cases in 24 hours.
Mr Freeman said the hill station-based Kodaikanal International School had been very lucky, with nearly zero COVID-19 cases so far, and few in the neighbouring community.
But he said the crisis was still hitting staff and students, who were scared for loved ones in other parts of India.
Now experiencing a deadly second wave, the country has recorded hundreds of thousands of new cases each day for weeks.
On social media there's just an avalanche of people, friends of friends, just begging for help ... trying to get into private hospitals, trying to source oxygen, trying to save family members.Nick Freeman
He said the past few weeks had been surreal despite the national chaos.
COVID-19 has barely affected his life in the school's bubble.
Mr Freeman said most of the news he heard about chaos in India's north was coming via YouTube, or messages from people in Australia. He said Kodaikanal felt like one of the safest places in India.
"It hasn't really touched where I'm living anywhere near like it has in the north. It seems like another world," he said.
But as the school was now almost empty as it the northern hemisphere academic year drew to a close.
Mr Freeman said a mass exodus of students began about a fortnight ago, as India's situation worsened. While Kodaikanal was fine, India was increasingly being cut off, and students had to return to homes all over the world, he said.
A few major COVID-19 outbreaks in other Indian international schools possibly hastened the process.
Now teachers are facing their long summer holiday, unable to leave the mountain. Normally, staff would spend the two-month break visiting family across India or further abroad.
Mr Freeman said for longer serving staff, it was their second year in a row in that situation. He said nearly all staff had received at least one vaccine dose - himself included - and some were fully vaccinated.
While they were safe, Mr Freeman said many staff were watching family and friends in other parts of India suffer. He said unlike in India's first wave, COVID-19 was now spreading across class lines, affecting the social groups of the middle-class teaching staff.
"On social media there's just an avalanche of people, friends of friends, just begging for help ... trying to get into private hospitals, trying to source oxygen, trying to save family members," he said.
"It's people you would normally expect that the system would work for them, and it's just broken down.
"You've got a lot of staff really scared for their family, a lot of staff grieving. You're just stuck here and you're pretty helpless, and you can't do anything."
Kodaikanal might have avoided the worst of COVID-19 so far, but the area hasn't fully escaped the crisis.
Mr Freeman said the neighbouring Kodaikanal community was struggling without its usual income from tourism. He said families would normally make their entire yearly income during June, July and August, as tourists travelled up to the hill station.
But a block on the single road up the mountain prevented anyone entering.
Mr Freeman said the school was providing 5000 meals a day to families who were already struggling after 2020.
"Families have used up all their reserves, sold their car, sold their washing machine, sold their motorbike ... to get through last year," he said.
"There's going to be a lot of families really, really struggle through this summer."
It's a contrast from when Mr Freeman left Australia in January. Then, India's COVID-19 infection rate had dropped so low the country reopened schools.
Mr Freeman's school had remained strict about safety. Students weren't allowed off campus, everyone wore masks all the time, cleaning and social distancing were in force, and large gatherings were avoided within the school.
Mr Freeman said there had been just two COVID-19 cases at Kodaikanal since then: one returning student, who was isolated immediately; and a staff member, whose husband travelled down to the plains where he contracted COVID-19.
Mr Freeman said state governments decided to close schools as the crisis worsened. Students finished off the last few weeks of term on online. Year 12s at Kodaikanal were unable to sit their final exams.
"It was a really strange semester. A lot of it was politically sensitive, because there were state elections and political campaigning going on for a lot of that time," Mr Freeman said.
"A lot of policy was being influenced by politicians sensitive to the electoral implications of decisions, so if there was a little spike in COVID, there would be something imposed."
Mr Freeman expects the new school year, in two months' time, to start online, until students could be vaccinated.
Five months in, would Mr Freeman make the decision to travel to India again?
It depends on whether he looks from his perspective, or his family's.
"I think I would. In terms of why I came and what I'm doing, I'm doing the things that I came to do," he said.
"From my own self-centred perspective, I'm happy enough here. But I recognise the angst it's caused loved ones in Australia who are worried about me, or feel separated from me.
"My wife hasn't been able to come. The prospect of getting home and being able to see children, and my little granddaughter, is not going to happen for a long, long time."
- with AAP
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