When the son of a Retd General in the Indian Army heard that a former colleague of his father found it difficult to find a hospital bed in Delhi when he urgently needed it, Rohit Mediratta was shocked. It didn’t make sense – an army man who had dedicated his life to keeping the nation safe, had to struggle to find medical safety in the nation’s capital.
Rohit’s father’s friend subsequently passed away due to COVID-19. His concerns intensified after hearing from his brother who is a neurosurgeon at New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital that routine surgeries and admissions were put on hold due to lack of oxygen. Residents of California, Rohit and his wife, Kanika realised that the COVID wave in India this time was different from 2020.
“It really penetrated us. We had just finished speaking to my husband’s parents. We were watching news coming from India. It struck us that there has to be something that we can do about it,” says Kanika.
Knowing nothing about oxygen production or supplies, the Indian-American couple got down to some research, made cold calls to oxygen concentrator suppliers, located a reliable distributor, and started a fundraiser on gofundme.
“When we started, it was scary as we didn’t know if we will be able to raise the required funds. We got support from friends, family, friends of friends, people we had not seen in 20 years, from UK, Singapore, Switzerland. For my husband and I with no skills in fundraising, with no big organisation backing us, it seems to have paid off,” said Kanika.
They exceeded their target of USD 100,000 significantly in a matter of hours.
Rohit and Kanika have successfully managed to find transport for the 224 units of 5L oxygen concentrators to reach Delhi. The concentrators will be distributed to hospitals by the Save Life Foundation which partners with the Delhi government.
Indian Americans are directly impacted by the public health catastrophe unfolding in India with parents, siblings, relatives, and friends getting infected back home. Social media is full of desperate pleas from Indians seeking oxygen cylinders, concentrators, hospital beds, and ventilators. But instead of reacting to the near collapse of health care systems in Indian cities, a good number of them are actively organising help.
Silicon Valley Pledges Help
Famous Silicon Valley billionaire entrepreneur and investor Vinod Khosla reached out to India with a tweet – “I'm willing to fund hospitals in India that need funding to import bulk planeloads of oxygen or supplies into India to increase supply.”
Immediately, multiple organisations and hospitals in India reached out to him to seek supplies. And Khosla has been actively involved in organising aid. He politely declined to speak to The Quint on his efforts.
Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella also tweeted about how they plan to help India.
Doing All It Takes
Over the years, desis have established paths and partnerships with non-profits in India for their philanthropy, with Indian Americans more engaged in 2020, directly providing funds to NGOs and making donations to the PM CARES fund.
Tech entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist Sunil Wadhwani launched his non-profit WISH Foundation six years back. They have set up 700 primary health care centers in low-income communities in India in coordination with local organisations.
Wadhwani’s foundation responded to requests for help from state governments last year to set up COVID management centres, teleconferencing networks for patients to seek consultations with doctors, and helped train over 25,000 health care professionals in COVID protocol.
The new COVID wave has seen Wadhwani, a Founders Circle member of Indiaspora, ramp up his efforts. “Our goal is to send 10K oxygen concentrators, 10K oxygen cylinders, over 100K face masks and pulse oxymeters very quickly,” he said.
Wadhwani’s family foundation has reportedly channelled USD 1 million to India in 2020 for COVID-related programs, has committed Rs 1 cr last week for medical help, and is raising another USD 1 million, to deal with the dramatic short supply of oximeters and oxygen concentrators.
Wadhwani lost his brother in Delhi to COVID a few months ago, and several of his relatives in India are battling the deadly virus.
With a compelling urge to help India in its hour of reckoning, Indian Americans across multiple US cities are raising large amounts of funds to send urgently required medical equipment to India.
A Texas community organisation raised $100k in less than 12 hours, while the American Association of Physicians of Indian origin (AAPI) raised USD 100K in a matters of hours to send oxygen concentrators to India.
The urgency and scale of mobilisation in the desi community is unprecedented. Founder and Chairman of the Indian American advocacy organisation Indiaspora, M R Rangaswami finds that the public health ordeal in India is incomparable to anything,
“After independence, it is the biggest threat that India has faced. The urgency seems 100X right now. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was more about providing relief for the migrant workers. Now people are dying in the thousands. Every Indian American knows someone in India who is either dead or dying or has COVID. It is hitting you on a personal level. The commitment and the desire to help is 100X.”
Pushing The Biden Administration to Act
On 24 April, the US government announced that it will deploy support to India. The Biden administration had faced strong criticism for not saying and doing enough for a nation it considers an important ally. Leaders in the Indian American community were instrumental in making the administration realise the significance of the moment as the virus ravages India.
The immigrant community leveraged their connections and used their voice at every level, to impact foreign policy. “Indiaspora has some very powerful members. They called people all the way up to the President,” said Rangaswami.
“The community called everybody – their representatives, Senators, Congressmen. Ro Khanna, Raja Krishnamoorti, Vivek Murthy, they helped a lot. All of this happened behind the scenes. It was a community effort. We all played a role in our own way – text, call, tweet. It was not a concerted effort. We all felt the same way and it happened organically.”MR Rangaswami
Sunil Wadhwani of the WISH Foundation was also a part of the effort to make the Biden administration understand the urgency of the situation in India. “I was indirectly a part of it,” he said.
Another Indiaspora member, Shekar Narsimhan was instrumental in pushing the administration. “There is a group of us that works together. There are a lot of people who worked to explain to the US government to open up to India in the face of this emergency, and fortunately they did,” said Wadhwani.
‘We Have to Engage’: Dr Ashish Jha
One of the most recognised faces on US television, sharing valuable public health expertise is that of Dr Ashish K Jha, Dean of Brown University School of Public Health.
His op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting how US can help as India’s health infrastructure is stretched to the point of collapse, helped draw a lot of attention to the issue.
Neal Katyal, a distinguished lawyer and former Acting Solicitor General of the US found Dr Jha’s article very relevant:
“I read Dr Jha’s posts and I thought he made such a compelling, simple case for the US to step up its commitment to India and the world. I’m so grateful to him for his leadership on this issue. As Indian Americans, we have family in India – as I write this one of my elderly aunts had very low pulse and couldn’t get oxygen for the last 24 hours. So I think it’s incumbent on all of us to remind the United States government that our values and image are at stake – and that where we can do more, we must. I sent Dr Jha’s op-ed to several people in the Administration, yes. I do not have the public health expertise that he does, so I encouraged them to read it and to speak with him.Neal Katyal
Congressman Ro Khanna also spoke about Dr Jha’s op-ed on The Hasan Mehdi Show – “I know this in talking to people in the administration that Dr Jha's editorial was instrumental in influencing the administration.”
Dr Ashish Jha expressed his concerns about the need to contain the numbers on the PBS NewsHour:
“These are the worst days of the global pandemic. India is at the heart of it. It is the epicenter. Hospitalisation need will rise, patients will not have any place to go, unless mass expansion of hospital facilities takes place. This could have been prevented as infections had come in control. Kumbh mela and the election rallies took place. We were watching for the last 2 months and were sounding the alarm. The size of problem is enormous. It is a global pandemic – things in one place spread quickly to another. New variants coming out of India are now also here (US). We have to engage to bring the numbers down.”Dr Ashish Jha
Eighteen percent of the world’s population lives in India.
Even as Indian Americans deal with personal losses of their loved ones in India, and with the anxiety of finding critical medical care for the ones gasping for breath, they understand that it is in everyone’s best interests to contain the virus.
Along with mustering crucial medical equipment for India, Indian Americans are now collecting signatures to petition the US government to release to India at least half of the 60 million surplus doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine that it has decided to donate to fight the pandemic.
(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.)