Indian community in Triangle suffers losses as COVID cases, deaths surge in India

·6 min read

Anuja Purohit has been in the United States since she was a toddler, but much of her family remains in India, where new, daily COVID-19 cases have recently topped 400,000 and are likely a fraction of the true totals.

In New Delhi, the nation’s capital, her aunt’s family tested positive for COVID-19. Their children were studying abroad, unable to come home to support their parents.

“We’re in anguish because they couldn’t be there in person to help their parents in their greatest time of need,” Purohit said.

“My aunt had to face the situation alone in sickness,” she said during a candlelight vigil in Cary for people in India who have died due to the virus and the country’s overwhelmed health care system.

Purohit’s aunt searched for a hospital bed and oxygen for her husband, but even after they were able to find them, her uncle died. He was a jovial spirit, Purohit said. He was a son, father, brother, husband and uncle.

Millions of families across India are going through what Purohit’s family went through.

There have been more than 24 million COVID-19 cases in India, and more than 260,000 people there have died. The country is second in the world, after the United States, in cases and third in the world, after the United States and Brazil, in deaths.

In the Triangle, people in the Indian community say they don’t know anyone with family in India who has not been affected.

Nitant Satghare, who works for Spectrum, said many people in his family in Pune, India, have tested positive for the virus. His mother had to wake up in the middle of the night to take care of her family. His grandmother’s sister’s entire family tested positive, he said. One of his relatives there died.

“I wish I was back home to hug them, pitch in my part, get them groceries, talk to doctors, get them medicine,” he said.

According to Harvard University’s India COVID-19 Vaccine tracker, about 40 million people had been fully vaccinated as of May 13, out of the country’s more than 1.4 billion people. Vaccine production and distribution is lagging far behind the country’s needs as people struggle to find oxygen and hospital beds.

A triple-variant of the virus that spreads more easily and may resist vaccines has also emerged in India, according to the World Health Organization, CNBC reported.

How to help

People and groups across the Triangle have identified organizations in India working to get help to those who need it.

Purohit recommends people donate to the Desai Foundation, a Boston-based organization primarily focused on women’s issues in the rural parts of the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan..

Megha Desaisaid, the foundation’s president, said it has set up “isolation and relief centers” where beds, food, medicine and sanitary napkins are provided before patients become critically ill. It is also providing rapid COVID-19 tests and supplies like oxygen concentrators and personal protective equipment.

Desai said she lost three family members in India. “It affected my parents; it affected my cousins,” she said. “We had job loss, mental health issues because of the stress.”

The Hindu Society of North Carolina is recommending its more than 5,000 members donate to Sewa International, a Hindu faith-based nonprofit based in Texas that serves people regardless of religion, according to its website, said director Manoj Pandya. The organization is trying to raise $10 million to help buy oxygen concentrators and other supplies.

Ravi Mulukutla, a spokesperson for the Sri Venkateswara Temple of North Carolina in Cary, said the temple sent out a newsletter also recommending Sewa International.

Rakesh Agarwal is the owner of Home and Rug, a store that has a branch in Raleigh. Much of his family still lives in India. He has pledged $250,000 to provide oxygen concentrators and food rations through his nonprofit organization, Vision Express. It was initially set up to help people in rural India suffering from cataracts, but since the pandemic, it has helped hospitals by providing beds, oxygen and food.

“Our people on the ground are able to do a lot of things. They know who is going without meals, who needs help,” he said in a phone interview.

The biggest need is oxygen concentrators, he said. The machines filter air to produce medical-grade oxygen for those who need it.

Agarwal is hoping to raise $750,000 on top of the $250,000 he said his family has contributed, to send to India.

“As first-generation immigrants, we have a commitment to both our birth country and our adopted country and we are going to take care of our obligations to our birth country too,” he said.

Duke experts: Global assistance needed

Experts on the COVID-19 pandemic from Duke University said getting aid to the right places is challenging right now.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get more global assistance to India and get those supplies distributed to where they need to go,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, an assistant professor of global health and medicine. “They cannot sit in airports or on tarmacs.”

The Biden administration will be sending oxygen support, personal protective equipment, vaccine manufacturing supplies, remdesivir, rapid tests and other assistance, according to a White House news release on April 28.

The vaccine manufacturing supply will help make more than 20 million doses of the Astro Zeneca vaccine, which is being distributed in India.

“In the early stages of the epidemic in India, it looked like the number of cases and deaths were lower, but actually we have a lot of cases in India,” said Manoj Manmohan, a health economist. “There were far, far more cases than were reported globally in the official news sources.”

There were large events happening across India earlier in 2021, when the cases in the country were plummeting.

“A significant failure in my opinion, India decided to have large elections, and allowed massive religious festivals to happen where hundreds of thousands of people were getting together,” Manmohan said. “It continues to happen even as of this week.”

Government messaging has conflicted with that of scientists and clinicians on guidelines for social distancing, mask wearing and mass gatherings.

Many people with family in India in the Triangle said they would have loved to be home to help.

Pandya said he feels frustrated and helpless, but does not think going to India would be helpful.

“They are going to put you in quarantine, [and] you yourself become a liability,” he said. “In normal circumstances, we would rush to help.”

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