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Indian diaspora helping amid Covid crisis says government not doing enough

"It is not the job of Indians to be looking for oxygen," a professor organizing relief efforts said.
Image: A family member offers prayers during cremation of his loved one who died from Covid-19 in Allahabad, India, on May 8, 2021.
A family member prays during the cremation of a loved one who died from Covid-19 in Allahabad, India, on May 8.Sanjay Kanojia / AFP - Getty Images

As India grapples with the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the failure of the country’s health care system, Indian American activists and community members say more needs to be done to make sure that Indians of all backgrounds, religions and castes have fair and equitable access to treatment and vaccines.

Last week, India passed 20 million diagnosed Covid-19 cases — an extraordinarily high number that experts warn could be an undercount. More than 200,000 Indians have died from the virus to date, while an overwhelming number of patients need hospital beds and medical groups and vaccination rates in the country continue to be low.

Image: Rohan Aggarwal, 26, a resident doctor looks at a Coovid-19 patient's x-ray scan, inside the emergency room of Holy Family Hospital, during his 27-hour shift in New Delhi, India, May 1, 2021.
Rohan Aggarwal, 26, a resident doctor looks at a Coovid-19 patient's x-ray scan, inside the emergency room of Holy Family Hospital, during his 27-hour shift in New Delhi, India, May 1, 2021.Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Recent reports estimate that only 11.5 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people have been vaccinated so far, and while all Indian adults are now eligible for the vaccine, many states say they do not have the supplies to make that possible. Advocates note that India’s limited access to vaccines, oxygen and hospital beds is exposing the deep divisions that exist in Indian society.

“Poor Indians — no matter what background they are — simply have no means or no way to get help,” said Rasheed Ahmed, the executive director of the Indian American Muslim Council. “It is the basic responsibility of any government in a society to take care of their people, especially those who are marginalized, who have less access to resources,” He said that many of India’s current struggles can be attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to the public health crisis.

While wealthier Indians or those with connections abroad have access to funds to purchase oxygen or negotiate for hospital admission, that is not the case for many, he said. The search for resources, which favors those in urban areas with access to social media and proficiency in English, highlights how rural Indians and those from lower castes and minority religions are being left behind.

“It is not the job of Indians to be looking for oxygen,” said Sonali Gulati, a filmmaker and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, noting that the images of ordinary Indians doing so in the media shows the collapse of India’s health care system. For the past several weeks, Gulati has been working with both her contacts in India and members of the filmmaker collective Brown Girls Doc Mafia to organize support for lower caste Indians and those in rural areas in particular.

“There's clearly inequality. There are places where there are no hospitals for hundreds of kilometers. People don't have even hospitals or doctors or medical help. And there's, of course, the language barrier,” Gulati said. “There’s a lot of diversity [in India] and no central planning happening, so there’s complete chaos.”

To combat that, Gulati has been focusing on building relationships with rural organizations that she knows are actively working with citizens of all backgrounds.

While much has been written about Indian Americans and how they are emotionally processing what is happening in India and the fundraising efforts created by members of the diaspora, Gulati says that it is also important for the community to be advocating for better, more equitable policies both here and in India. “We need to listen to people who are on the ground,” Gulati said. “I think it's really important for us on this side, since we're really privileged and protected, to amplify those voices that are being silenced in India.”

Like Gulati, Boston resident Neha Wasnik has also been concerned with the lack of health care access in India’s rural areas. While she has friends and family in Mumbai, she noted that her social circle has been relatively fortunate because they had access to the vaccine.

But despite that, many friends of friends have been struggling. “With urban people in India actually having a tough time getting hospital beds, you can only imagine what must be the conditions in the rural parts of the country,” said Wasnik. For the past several weeks, Wasnik has been volunteering with the U.S.-based nonprofit the Association for India’s Development to raise supplies for rural hospitals and medical centers. “It takes about $20,000 to set up a rural hospital with 25 beds and medical staff,” said Wasnik. “So that is the aim for the current wave at least three months going forward.”

The Indian American medical community is also working to draw attention to the need for better vaccine access in India in particular. The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), which represents nearly 100,000 doctors of Indian descent, said in a statement that it already had shipped over a thousand oxygen generators and other essential supplies to India since the current crisis began.

But Dr. Sampat Shivangi, the chairman of the association’s legislative wing, says that addressing India’s vaccine shortage is the key to addressing the ongoing spread of the virus. "We urge the U.S. government to release at least 30 million doses of the vaccine to India,” he said in a statement to NBC Asian America, adding that AAPI also sent a letter to all 100 members of the U.S Senate asking them to lift restrictions on the raw materials needed to produce vaccines locally.

The Covid-19 crisis is particularly startling to many in both India and the United States because it originally appeared as if India was handling the situation well.

Ambika Samarthya-Howard was in Delhi just before things began shutting down in March 2020 because she was finalizing the adoption of her daughter. “It was a week before Holi and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, there's no way they're going to be able to shut down Holi. But they did. There were no celebrations and no parties. I was so impressed,’” Samarthya-Howard, the director of communications at Global Integrity, said. “I wouldn't say I was impressed with the government so much as I was impressed with the collective action of the people.”

Samarthya-Howard notes that it is particularly important for Indian Americans to organize with diverse groups like religious minorities, day laborers and working class and lower caste people to ensure their advocacy is benefitting the largest population possible.

But while advocates say that supporting grassroots actions and trusted nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, is important, they note that private citizens cannot ultimately do the work or deliver the services of successful government policy.

That's why the Indian American Muslim Council and other advocacy groups say that there needs to be more international oversight by organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations of how India’s Covid-19 response is being executed. Ahmed added that he and other members of the Council say that Modi should resign over his handling of the crisis.

“How much can NGOs do?” said Ahmed of the Indian American Muslim Council. “That’s a fraction of what a government can do if the government is competent.”