As a second COVID-19 wave rages through India, the country’s health care system finds itself unable to keep up with demand. Without sufficient hospital beds, equipment and, more important, oxygen, India has put out a call for help worldwide. And some members of the Indian diaspora in Connecticut are answering.
Sujata Srinivasan, an independent journalist with the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, is raising funds for OxygenforIndia. Formed by the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, the newly created organization is aimed at expediting the “last mile.”
The main issue in India, Srinivasan said, is not a lack of oxygen supply but instead a broken infrastructure. In other words, oxygen is available but few have access to it due to transportation, lack of connections, etc. That last mile is where OxygenforIndia comes in, helping bridge the gap between suppliers and patients.
“The problem that they’re solving is distribution, which is a huge barrier getting oxygen to people in desperate need right now,” she said. “It’s how do you get it to remote places? How do you get it to small hospitals? How do you get it to homes of COVID patients that cannot afford the hospital?”
The volunteer-run campaign has set up “help desks” at several hospitals in overburdened cities. Priority patients can obtain a reusable oxygen cylinder or concentrator with a fully refundable deposit.
By offering take-home options to patients who can safely recover at home, OxygenforIndia also targets overcrowding in hospitals.
“When a wound is bleeding, deeply bleeding, and there is a threat to life, the first thing you do is stop the bleeding. That is increasing the medical oxygen availability to hospitals and ramping up distribution,” Srinivasan said.
OxygenforIndia hopes to provide 40,000 cylinders and 3,000 concentrators to hospitals in need. Srinivasan has helped raise more than $4,500 so far. And in an effort to keep donations coming, she’s put her cooking skills on the table.
“I’m offering a thank-you gift -- a homemade Indian meal made by me to friends and family who donate more than $100,” Srinivasan said.
It’s the least she can do, she added, to help her natal country as many struggle to breathe over 7,000 miles away.
Just last week, the World Health Organization reported India accounts for 1 in 4 COVID deaths worldwide. And with more than 22 million confirmed cases, India becomes the second country with the most infections -- trailing just behind the U.S.
Dr. Sankar Niranjan, a nephrologist with Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, said the situation is not only alarming but also saddening. He runs the Connecticut chapter of AIM for SEVA, an education trust helping level the academic playing field for rural children in India.
The organization has partnered with SEWA International to provide relief.
“They’ve raised somewhere close to $10 million as of last week to send oxygen concentrators and supplies to the hard-hit parts of India,” Niranjan said.
SEWA international had shipped over 5,000 oxygen concentrators as of Monday, according to its website.
But how did India get to this point?
New coronavirus variants take the majority of the blame, but they aren’t alone in the case explosion.
“Earlier this year cases were low, people were feeling confident, and then we had this combination of pandemic fatigue, dropping precautions and lack of vaccinations. And all of a sudden we’re seeing this huge surge and the medical system is completely overwhelmed,” said Dr. Neha Jain, a psychiatrist with UConn Health.
She launched a private fundraiser on GoFundMe to help her former medical school peers. In the last weeks, she’s heard numerous accounts from them on how grim the situation is for both patients and those on the front lines.
“They have pulled providers that aren’t necessarily trained in western medicine. I don’t know if anyone in medicine is sleeping right now. There is a lot of frustration, but quite frankly there is a lot of fear in the medical community right now because when people’s loved ones are sickened and you can’t save them, people do get angry,” Jain said.
In less than a week, she raised almost $5,000 to purchase oxygen concentrators for Mayom Hospital, a private hospital in Gurgaon. The challenge, she said, as an individual and not a large organization is finding a reliable supplier. Many families in the same boat have had no option but to bank on the black market.
Along with many others of the diaspora, fundraising and sourcing supplies from miles away is Jain’s way of grappling with the crisis.
“You feel helpless, but then that intersperses with these impulses to drop everything and run back … but you know you can’t. So you figure out ways to cope. And I think that’s what most people from the immigrant community are doing,” Jain said.
While Connecticut, along with most of the country, prepares to return to some sense of normalcy by July 4, Jain said it’s important to remember that we’re not at the finish line just yet.
“Even though we are in a good place, the pandemic is not over,” Jain added. “What we’re seeing in India right now can very much happen here in the U.S. We still need to be careful.”