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As Covid ravages India, the diaspora pledges help

A collective of 30 student groups has raised $275,000 in six days.
Medical staff attend to a Covid-19 in New Delhi on May 3, 2021.
Medical staff attend to a Covid-19 patient in New Delhi on Monday.Rebecca Conway / Getty Images

After a concerning call with his mother in New Delhi about the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis in India, Priyank Lathwal said he felt an urgent need to help. 

Lathwal, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, quickly launched a fund and has, along with Shyamli Badgaiyan, a Harvard Business School student, helped unite 30 Indian and South Asian student groups from across the U.S. to drum up support. 

“I had switched on the news and then my mom called me and said, ‘Things are going really badly,’” Lathwal said. “When that happened I thought that, ‘Well, I need to do something about it.’”

Priyank Lathwal
Priyank Lathwal.Courtesy Priyank Lathwal

Lathwal’s page, “Help India Breathe,” raises money for oxygen and other supplies. Badgaiyan, who also has Delhi roots, had started a fundraising initiative through the nonprofit Give India’s fundraising page. Together, they raised about $275,000 in six days. 

"I was so anxious this last week — there was just so much despair and just sadness and helplessness,” Badgaiyan said. “Ever since I've started doing this I do feel so much — I don't want to say better — but at least like I’m being able to channel some of that anxious energy into something productive.”

A spokesperson for GoFundMe told NBC News that since April 17, fundraisers related to Indian Covid-19 relief have raised more than $6.5 million. These campaigns also have a global reach: GoFundMe calculated that 60,000 donors from 106 countries have contributed so far.

Lathwal, the president of Carnegie Mellon’s Indian Graduate Student Association, said he began hearing from students who were worried about their family members in India. Official numbers released by the Indian government said the country has passed 218,000 Covid-19 deaths, and many experts worry the number could be much higher.

The devastating second wave has severely overtaxed India’s health care system, with many hospitals having to turn away patients because of the lack of beds and medical oxygen. The White House announced Friday that travel from India into the United States would be restricted.

Lathwal and Badgaiyan’s fundraising project is just one of several being organized across the United States to benefit Indian Covid-19 relief. Connecticut resident Sujata Srinivasan first began raising money for Covid-19 patients in India early on in the pandemic, using GoFundMe to collect funds for a hospital in the Southern Indian city of Vellore. As the severity of the third wave became clearer, she knew she wanted to mobilize her contacts once again.

“I heard from a friend who is a critical care specialist at one of India’s top nonprofit hospitals and he called the situation ‘apocalyptic,’” said Srinivasan, who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago. “That's a pretty strong word for him to use because he's really not one prone to hyperbole, but this is what's happening.” She also heard from another friend who asked if she could personally purchase and ship an oxygen concentrator to Bangalore, India, because availability in the city was so low. Srinivasan spent the weekend figuring out how to do so. 

Last week, Srinivasan began encouraging her friends and neighbors to donate to Oxygen for India, a new initiative that is focusing on purchasing medical oxygen for hospitals and home-based patients. As an incentive to give, Srinivasan is offering to cook a three-course Indian meal for anyone local to her that donates $100 or more. 

“There will be a flavored Indian soup and appetizers like pakoras, and aloo parathas and a paneer dish and chickpeas and all of that,” she said. The meals will also be accompanied by a hand-drawing from her 6-year-old son. “It's also a way for me to teach my son to care and to be socially aware,” she said.

For members of the yoga community, directing students toward ways to help also serves as a way of continuing to highlight yoga’s roots in the Indian subcontinent. Tech worker and yoga teacher Divya Balakrishnan recently held a free online class in exchange for donations that supported four Indian nonprofits that raised over $11,000 in crowdfunded donations. Because many of those donations were matched by corporate sponsors, the event raised $22,600 total. 

As she started planning the event, Balakrishnan said she also began thinking more about the disparities that exist in Indian society. “It brought light to me that there's so much privilege that I have as an Indian American,” Balakishnan, who grew up in California and has family in the Indian city of Chennai, said. “I think everyone probably knows someone who's been impacted, or has been sick.”

Aditi Shah, a Peloton yoga and meditation teacher, issuing her platform to urge her audience to donate While Shah does not often post about her private life on social media, it felt like in this case she needed to speak up. On April 25, she wrote a detailed Instagram post about her connection to India and the sharp rise in coronavirus cases while also urging readers to donate to one of the nonprofits mentioned. “I wanted to offer ways that we really understand that we are all global citizens and we're all interconnected — especially my community, where many are yoga or meditation practitioners,” she said.

Fundraising is also serving as a much needed outlet for those processing the fact that they are thousands of miles away from their friends and family during a public health crisis. “The response has been very galvanizing in terms of folks from different walks of life trying to chip into whatever they can,” said Lathwal, adding that he's still receiving emails from people he’s never met who want to help out. “That sense of community is definitely part of this experience in raising funds.”

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