India’s Diaspora Aids Families Caught in Covid-19 ‘Medical War Zone’

The urgent pleas for help from Rohit Mediratta’s family and friends in India began a few weeks ago. Then his brother, a neurosurgeon in New Delhi, said that his hospital had canceled most surgeries after running low on oxygen.

Mr. Mediratta, a tech company director of engineering who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., said he and his wife, Kanika, felt compelled to act. She found a supplier of oxygen concentrators, which filter oxygen from the air, that was willing to ship immediately to India. They raised more than half a million dollars from a GoFundMe campaign, and on Tuesday the first batch of 140 concentrators arrived at a field hospital in Delhi.

“India is essentially a medical war zone,” Mr. Mediratta said. “It’s heart-wrenching that we can only do so much.”

As India struggles with the pandemic’s fastest-growing Covid-19 surge, one of the world’s largest diasporas is mobilizing aid, including many Indian-Americans. On Thursday, India reported more than 412,000 new daily cases, a global single-day high for the pandemic, and nearly 4,000 deaths.

There are about four million Americans of Indian descent, and many are donating to nonprofits that are shipping critical medical supplies to India and searching for vendors to send equipment.

The chief executives of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. and Microsoft Corp. , both born in India, have pledged millions in aid for oxygen and other medical supplies. The Indian-born co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. has also kicked at least $1 million.

Urooj Ansari, a graduate student in Jersey City, N.J., said she has spent hours combing the internet trying to find an oxygen cylinder for her 64-year-old father in New Delhi. He has struggled to breathe after testing positive for the virus that causes Covid-19.

“I was up all night because of the time difference between the U.S. and India, trying to contact people, contacting hundreds of people,” said Ms. Ansari, who moved to the U.S. in 2017.

Her brothers in India bought an empty cylinder for 50,000 rupees, or about $680, which is more than the average monthly salary in India. Despite lining up every single day for a week, they couldn’t get it filled with oxygen. The family finally managed to get her father a bed in a government hospital, where he has improved slightly after receiving oxygen.

“It was so terrifying,” said Ms. Ansari, breaking down in tears. “I couldn’t tell you what it is like to see my father struggling to breathe as he tried to say something to us.”

M.R. Rangaswami, a San Francisco-based angel investor and founder of the nonprofit Indiaspora, said no Indian-American has been untouched by the outbreak. He lost his sister to Covid-19 in November. Still, Mr. Rangaswami said he has been surprised by how quickly the virus has torn through the country.

“This is the biggest crisis India has faced since the Partition,” he said, referring to the 1947 split of the country into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. “I can’t think of anything in the last 75 years that’s this traumatic, this dire.”

Mr. Rangaswami said the scale of the disaster has forced organizations like Indiaspora, which normally hosts forums and events, to quickly learn how to fundraise and do crisis management. Indiaspora, a global organization of people of Indian origin, has raised $1 million from its members and helped with other efforts such as a virtual fundraiser held Saturday, with appearances by prominent people of Indian heritage, including wellness guru Deepak Chopra and talk-show host Lilly Singh.

Indiaspora, which joined with several nonprofits working on the ground, is focusing aid on three areas: funding Covid-19 treatment centers, feeding migrant workers and providing financial support to families that have lost breadwinners.

Before the U.S. implemented a travel ban involving India on May 4, Mr. Rangaswami said the group also helped arrange emergency visas for people who wanted to fly to India to help sick relatives. The travel restrictions have heightened the desire among Indian-Americans to pitch in however they can.

“There is a feeling of helplessness because they can’t go back,” he said.

Nishant Pandey, chief executive of the nonprofit American India Foundation in New York, said he was hospitalized for six days in Mumbai in January after contracting Covid-19 during a trip to India. His mother was also infected, and spent 12 days on a ventilator in a hospital in Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. They both recovered. During his time in the Indian healthcare system, Mr. Pandey said he was struck by the number of hospitals that were dismantling their Covid-19 wards. They were convinced, he said, that the crisis was over.

Then in March, Mr. Pandey said the nonprofit’s employees in India began reporting that infections were climbing, especially among young people. That is when the foundation, which works to support public health and education in India, decided to ramp up aid efforts. It has ordered 8,500 oxygen concentrators from suppliers outside India and is in the process of adding 2,500 beds at hospitals across the country, he said.

Despite their best efforts, many Indian-Americans say they have found that there are limits to how much help they can offer from thousands of miles away.

Mrs. Mediratta, who has been sourcing oxygen concentrators with her husband, said her parents have both recently tested positive for Covid-19 and they scrambled to find an oxygen concentrator for her mother. Other members of their extended family have died. “That fear and anxiety is obviously there,” she said.

Mr. Pandey said three of his India-based employees, all in their 30s and 40s, have died from Covid-19. When the first one fell ill, Mr. Pandey and others called dozens of hospitals in Delhi trying to secure a bed with oxygen for him.

“We were frankly a little bit shocked and surprised that just finding a bed with oxygen was such a big deal,” Mr. Pandey said. They finally located one, but the young man died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

“I’m basically feeling probably as helpless as anyone else in the Indian community here in the U.S., trying to help their relatives or friends,” Mr. Pandey said.


Appeared in the May 7, 2021, The Wall Street Journal print edition as ‘Overseas Indians Mobilize To Help.’

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