“I think the thing that is astounding is the number of messages we have got asking for help and advice, as to what they can do to help themselves and their loved ones, how can we get them care over there as they are sick with COVID,” says infectious diseases expert Dr Krutika Kuppalli.
Indian-American physicians are being inundated with messages of help from India, where thousands are struggling to provide medical care for family members suffering from COVID-19 amid the second wave.
Dr Kuppalli is an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, and vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America Global Health Committee. With her months-long experience of dealing with COVID-19, in response to a call from a friend whose family member was sick with COVID-19, Dr Kuppalli along with a group of experts, decided to put together some basic information in a post. The infographic was shared, accessed and found relevant by thousands.
“Dr Madhu Pai (Professor & Canada Research Chair of Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University) reached out to me, asked me to help, so we started working. What can we do to help? It started with one slide with words on it, and then became an infographic which got so much attention,” she said.
“The thing that really astounded me is that it has been translated into various languages in India, Turkish, Farsi. It is bigger than just India. They have released new versions with more details. The US medical system has strict treatment protocols. A strong medical litigation system is in place. It is not routine for physicians in US to prescribe medicines in social interaction settings, or offer consultation to strangers via social media or WhatsApp texts. But this is not a routine situation,” adds Dr Kuppalli.
Indian-American doctors are aware that medications used to treat COVID-19 in India differ slightly from those approved in US, and advise accordingly.
“This is a different situation. It is a crisis, emergency situation. We are not offering medical advice, we are giving practical advice for people to care for their loved ones. It is different from saying take this or that medicine. We are not coming out with this ourselves. It is based on scientific literature – NIH, CDC, & WHO guidelines.”Dr Kuppalli
India Not Prepared for The Worst
In spite of a much hyped vaccine campaign, it is clear that India wasn’t prepared for the ravages of the second wave, made more lethal by oxygen supply shortages. With the medical infrastructure overwhelmed, Indians left to fend for themselves to find medicines, oxygen, and hospital access, are turning to relatives, colleagues, neighbours, and friends who have contacts in the medical community.
Social media and WhatsApp are inundated with requests to Indian doctors in the US, UK and other countries to help figure out treatment. “I get calls every day, saying some family member is sick with COVID-19, what can we do. Mostly they don’t know me directly, they know me through my work, through friends. They will put a question in my WhatsApp saying, ‘I am sick, my father is sick, my mother is sick, what should I do?’” says Georgia based Dr Sudhakar Jonnalagudda, President of American Association of Physicians of Indian origin (AAPI).
After being at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 in the US since February 2020, desi physicians are now helping India. While Indian Americans make up less than one percent of US population, 7 percent of medical doctors in the US are of Indian descent.
AAPI Fundraising Initiative
Members of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) raised more than USD 100,000 in just one day, on 23 April, to provide oxygen to hospitals in India. “The Indian consulate in Atlanta got in touch with me two days ago. Our executive committee decided to raise funds. In the first phase of our efforts, we currently plan to send 200 units of oxygen concentrators because most of the people are dying due to lack of oxygen. Every Indian-American physician affected by COVID, who lost someone in the family or got sick, has contributed. I am not stopping. We will try to do as much as possible,” says Dr Jonnalagudda.
AAPI has coordinated with a non-profit organisation, SEWA International, to receive the equipment in New Delhi and distribute it in hospitals which require it urgently.
Contribution Towards COVID-19 Crisis in India
Indian Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area are responding to an urgent call to raise USD 100,000 in a matter of a few hours, to help ‘Save Life Foundation’ provide oxygen concentrators to Delhi hospitals. Californian Senator Ro Khanna is spreading the word for this effort, initiated by Bay Area residents Kanika and Rohit Mediratta, whose parents live in Delhi.
India Community Center’s ‘Crack the Wellness Code’ is a Silicon Valley-based group, which shares medical and wellness practices with its members all over the world. Its Indian-American doctor patrons such as Dr Naris Bhat, Founder of Jiva health, a medical group in California, have been advising friends and their families in India via phone and texts. “We have been offering help through the last year, but in the last few weeks it has intensified. We let them know which medical tests to go for, how to keep a count of days from the first symptom, which days are critical, use of oxymeters, nutrition, etc,” says Bhat.
Another one of its physician patron, Dr Padma Srinivasan is communicating with other doctors in the community to raise awareness. “We as individuals have a responsibility to contact our representatives to request the US government to provide surplus medicines and oxygen. US has the ingredients and copyrights that it can share with India. India gave more than 56 million vaccine doses to the world,” she says.
Prominent Indian-American physicians and desi community leaders are making public statements, urging the US government to release vaccines and raw materials used to manufacture them to India, to help the COVID-ravaged country.
A frequent expert presence on TV channels and media, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Dr Ashish K Jha, has been keeping Americans well informed of COVID-19 for over a year. His opinion in a tweet, “India is in the throes of a horrendous COVID surge. They are struggling to get more people vaccinated. We are sitting on 35-40 million doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine. Americans will never use. Can we please give or lend them to India? Like may be now? It'll help. A lot.”
A vocal leader of the Asian American community, who works closely with the Biden administration, Shekar Narsimhan urged via twitter for US to intervene. “We have to do something in the face of a humanitarian disaster. Every friend I know in the US with family in India reports that relatives have died or been affected. @POTUS please speak to @PMOIndia and see if we can lend 10M doses of AZ vaccine like tomorrow. We must help now.” US State Department has clarified that US’s priority is to vaccinate its population first.
Many Getting Affected by The Current COVID Crisis
The desi community is impacted by the current crisis in India not only as doctors trying to help, but also as people living half way across the world from their families and loved ones who are suffering.
A politician serving in the California State Assembly, Ash Kalra lost his aunt in India to the virus. He tweeted. “The #COVID19 crisis has gotten so bad in India. My aunt, who had a non-COVID related emergency that required oxygen for treatment, couldn’t go to the hospital because there are no beds and my cousin couldn’t find any oxygen tank to buy. She died at home untreated overnight.”
Having seen India contain its first COVID-19 wave with an effective lockdown in 2020, it is heartbreaking for Indian-American medical experts to see images of overwhelmed Indian cemeteries, and parking lots being converted to cremation grounds.
Dr Kuppalli believes that even though the situation is dire, people have the ability to control the trajectory. “I was worried last year February, when I said that India would be the epicenter of the pandemic. Now it will get worse before it will get better. People need to understand that they have to stop going to gatherings, wear masks. Only by following public health guidelines and getting vaccinated, can the pandemic be controlled – that is within the power of people.”
Talking about the spread of the virus in India and its consequent impact on the world, Dr Kupalli signs off thus – “We are not safe till everyone is safe. How much longer will conversations between families and friends in US and India, start by asking about oxygen saturation levels?”
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.)