‘Their situation is very desperate’: Philly region’s Indian community uses ties back home to send COVID aid

As a powerful second COVID surge ravages their home country, those in the Philadelphia region with family in India cannot simply stand by and watch.

Dr. Shubha Varma and her husband perform a surgery together on a medical mission in the Dominican Republic. (Courtesy of Dr. Shubha Varma)

Dr. Shubha Varma and her husband perform a surgery together on a medical mission in the Dominican Republic. (Courtesy of Dr. Shubha Varma)

Lakshmi Iyer feels like she’s caught between two worlds. The 45-year-old financial service worker lives in Exton with her family, and has been watching with horror as COVID-19 cases have surged in her home country of India. Her Twitter feed is full of people back home begging for oxygen, searching for open hospital beds, or trying to secure remdesivir, Theraflu or other treatment drugs in short supply for sick loved ones. Entire families she knows are testing positive, including her in-laws. Eight people in her extended circle have died, she said.

Meanwhile, Iyer’s Facebook feed is full of friends in America, boasting their vaccination selfies, planning their summer vacations and backyard parties.

“It just is so jarring,” she said. “Obviously, when you’re sitting 8,000 miles away, there’s very little you can do.”

Indians and Indian Americans living across the Philadelphia region are wrestling with a feeling of helplessness as a massive second surge of COVID-19 sweeps that nation. Often with close family split between countries, they are leveraging networks to raise funds, lobby politicians, and send supplies to India, where case counts are so high that nearly everyone knows multiple people who are ill.

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India is the country of origin for about 6% of Philadelphia’s more than 230,000 immigrants, according to the American Community Survey. Over the past decades, they have been one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the region, which in 2019 had roughly 60,000 residents born in India, many of them now living in Chester and Montgomery counties. So while the COVID surge may be happening very far away, for those with family members in India, it doesn’t feel so distant.

Jayasharee and K.S. Bhaskar, based in Malvern, run a grassroots political organizing group called They See Blue, which aims to increase political participation among South Asians living in the Philadelphia region. At first, they were struck by the same feeling of absolute helplessness and paralysis as Iyer.

“It kind of feels like watching a train wreck happening in slow motion and not being able to do much about it,” said K.S. Bhaskar, who runs a software company.

Soon though, they began using the same Signal groups and Google Chats they’d used for their political organizing to collect donations.

One concern they heard from donors was that the supplies wouldn’t make it to those most in need. Rumors were circulating of India’s elite hoarding oxygen concentrators in case they fell ill and needed to treat themselves at home due to overcrowded hospitals. So the Bhaskars found Shubha Varma, a vascular surgeon in Bergen County, New Jersey, who was raising funds to send oxygen concentrators directly to hospitals and doctors on the ground.

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Boxes of oxygen condensers Dr. Shubha Varma is sending to India. (Courtesy of Dr. Shubha Varma)

Varma went to medical school in India, so she and her colleagues in the States used their physician networks to determine which supplies were needed most and ensure they get where they need to go.

“What we are hearing from them is that their situation is very desperate,” said Varma. “People are dying at home and not being able to get into the hospital because there are no beds.”

In its first 48 hours online, Varma’s GoFundMe effort raised more than $150,000, and is now nearing its $250,000 goal. She was able to buy the concentrators, which pull oxygen from the air rather than relying on separate cartridges, in bulk through her hospital system in Hackensack. They cost anywhere from $300 to $2,500 each. She fronted the purchase and delivery costs herself and coordinated every detail, including who would pick up the concentrators from the airport, and deliver them to the government or charity hospitals.

“It has taken over my life at this point,” she said. “I don’t feel hungry, I can’t sleep, I am just constantly thinking about what else I can do.”

Up until a few months ago, it appeared that India had escaped the brutal second wave of cases suffered by Europe and the United States. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had instituted one of the harshest lockdowns early on, with police questioning anyone leaving the house. In recent months though, he promoted attendance at massive Hindu festivals, where hundreds of thousands gathered maskless; many now point to those superspreader events.

Public health experts attribute to that, along with low vaccination rates, India’s exponentially rising case counts and relentless deaths, a situation bound to get worse before it gets better. Despite being the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the vaccine and any infrastructure to distribute it has been in short supply, proportionate to the population. The Biden administration announced earlier this week that it would send vaccines and supplies to India.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Nikil Saval has family in India who are ill and in need of oxygen. He said he supports the Biden administration’s efforts to send aid, and believes the pharmaceutical companies should relax patents on the vaccines to ease their distribution.

Still, he said, as long as the virus is still raging back home, he can’t rest easy or feel that the pandemic is truly on its way out in the United States. The interwoven nature of immigrant families stretched across the globe stands as a reminder to him that a crisis in one part of the world has an impact elsewhere, too — even as case counts dwindle, but travel restrictions and fallout remains.

“The connections are just severed,” Saval said of his family, whom he is accustomed to visiting, and hosting in the States. “You can’t see them. The relationship with them is completely strained. It’s just gone.”

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