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FAR FROM THE TRAGEDY

The Indian diaspora is struggling to help with the Covid-19 crisis in India

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai
Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas/
There aren't many ways to help from abroad.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter

Published Last updated on

The Indian diaspora—the world’s largest, at 18 million—is watching loved ones struggle through the largest Covid-19 outbreak on Earth, and trying to find ways to help. In the span of few weeks, cases shot up from 15,000 a day in March to 200,000 a day in the past week. Yesterday, the country surpassed 316,000 cases—the record for a single day in any country since the epidemic started.

The country that until recently was celebrating its “vaccine friendship” program and shipping millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine around the world is now in need of help. Hospital beds and oxygen are in short supply, and deaths—now officially standing above 1,500 a day—might be severely undercounted.

Watching the tragedy unfold

For the Indians abroad who live in rich countries where vaccines are available, and healthcare infrastructure more reliable, the distress over the surge is especially high.

Dhiraj Srivastava, a research assistant at Virginia Tech, says that after someone in his family died of Covid-19 two weeks ago, he has been worried about his mother, his sole remaining parent. Although she is fine so far, and he has been able to book a vaccine appointment for her, he wishes he had been able to take her to the US. It’s too late now—she lives in Jharkhand state and would have to travel 18 hours to Delhi to get a flight to the US, which would put her in danger of contracting the virus.

There’s a ban on travel to the UK from tomorrow (Apr. 23), and it’s possible that the US, Canada, and other countries with large Indian populations will follow suit. It may become increasingly difficult to ship relatives out.

“I feel like I am reading about Bergamo last year at the start of the outbreak. But it’s an entire country of 1.3 billion people and the government had a year to prepare for this,” says Supriya Bakht, a former lawyer who lives in Goa. She went to visit her in-laws in Italy earlier this year, and was unable to return to India due to the outbreak in India.

A sense of guilt makes the helplessness feel stronger. “Many Indians, like me, took a decision to immigrate for a better life, leaving behind close families and relationships,” says Aditya Kumar, a software engineer who moved to Sydney, Australia, with his family in 2016. Kumar feels split between his daily life in Australia, where life continues as normal, and India. “Will this be a decision that will haunt the rest of my life? Or maybe I will be thankful because at least my child is safe here?” he wonders.

Ways to help from afar

Those who can are donating to local mutual aid societies and organizations that help those financially affected by Covid-19 or the lockdown by providing food, essential goods, or personal protective equipment. There are organizations working to get oxygen supplies, although progress is still slow.

But unlike with other emergencies, helping with this Covid-19 wave is proving especially hard. The primary problems—lack of hospital capacity, or oxygen supplies—can’t be solved in the short term, let alone from far away.

There are possible longer-term solutions. The main such effort is the push to get pharmaceutical companies to lift patents from Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, perhaps through a suspension of the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement on intellectual property, to help speed up local vaccine production. While that wouldn’t ease India’s situation immediately, it would still help improve access to treatment globally, including in other south Asian countries, such as Bangladesh or Nepal, at risk of seeing the Indian Covid-19 surge spill over their borders.

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