Indian diaspora chip in from all corners of the world to help Covid-19 crisis

People queue outside a government dispensary to buy Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, in Chennai, on April 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Every morning begins with a sense of dread for Ms Gayathree Devi K T. The Indian doctoral student at Britain's University of Oxford goes through her WhatsApp inbox first thing in the morning to check on her family and other loved ones back home.

She is especially worried about the safety of her mother, who works for a government bank in Mumbai and goes to the office daily. She is yet to be fully vaccinated, and several individuals who work in the same building as her have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent weeks.

Could her mother be next? It is a thought that haunts her as well as her family. "It's always, you know, at the back of all our minds that it may just be a matter of days before she tests positive," Ms Gayathree said.

For many in the Indian diaspora, estimated to be more than 18 million, being away from their loved ones in India while they battle a crippling second wave of coronavirus infections has been distressing. From their relatively safe bubbles, but overwhelmed with guilt and helplessness, they have watched the sick queue up outside overburdened hospitals and the dead pile up at overworked crematoriums.

"It's difficult to pretend everything is okay, just because you are far away. In fact, that intense sense of survivor's guilt - it is what they call it - most of us feel that quite intensely," Ms Gayathree, 25, told The Straits Times.

Deeply concerned at the catastrophe unfolding in India, she and some other Indian students at Oxford rallied together to support India's fight against Covid-19. They set up an online fund-raising page on Wednesday (April 28), one targeted at the Oxford community and calling for donations that will be shared with Indian charities. It has already surpassed its initial target of raising £10,000 (S$18,465) in a little more than two days.

It is an example of how members of the diaspora are lending their financial muscle and mobilising social media to empower organisations fighting Covid-19 in India.

Mr Prithviraj Ammanabrolu, a 23-year-old doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, donated around two months' of his student salary and has been amplifying calls for help through his Twitter account.

"I'm just trying to help in whatever ways I can," he told ST. The Indian national is aware of his privileges that come from being in the United States currently. He has received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, and worries about his parents in India, who are yet to be fully vaccinated, as well as other unvaccinated loved ones.

Every call from home in Bangalore these days sends his anxiety levels soaring. "You're like, oh my God, who is it this time? It is like living on the edge, it's just like a lot of anxiety," added Mr Ammanabrolu, who lost one of his high school teachers as well as a paternal uncle to Covid-19 in this ongoing wave.

It is not just through donations that the diaspora has pitched in. Indian-origin citizens in the US, including members of the Congress, have also raised their voices to get the American government to do more to support India through this pandemic.

"Get more vaccines to India. Get more vaccines to India. Get more vaccines to India," Mr Mehdi Hasan, a British-American journalist of Indian origin, tweeted on April 24. This was a few days before the US announced it was sharing its stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines with India and other countries. The tweet, one among many calling for a similar US government intervention, was liked by more than 61,000 users and retweeted more than 11,000 times.

Diaspora voices continue to campaign online on important issues such as getting pharmaceutical companies to suspend patents on Covid-19 vaccines. It is with this idea of a sustained campaign of help, one which goes beyond donating money, that Toronto-based social media manager Aswini Sivaraman put together a Google Doc that went live on April 24.

The "one-stop resource" includes crowd-sourced leads on what diaspora members can do to contribute in a more helpful and meaningful way. Suggestions include commenting on social media posts of Indian politicians to hold them accountable and urging them "to do more, to do better". Other tips include signing online petitions calling on foreign governments to help India and urging Indian-born global corporate leaders to provide "concrete, on-ground, relevant solutions".

"I'm not sure if there is like that one large diasporic movement that someone can join," Ms Sivaraman, 35, told ST. "But there are, I would say, smaller tactics and smaller things that we can do to stay involved and keep staying involved because it doesn't look like this (the pandemic) is going to end anytime soon."

Doctors of Indian origin are, meanwhile, being inundated with calls for help from India, where families are struggling to provide medical care for their loved ones. Based in the state of Georgia in the US, Dr Sudhakar Jonnalagadda receives 20 to 30 calls every day seeking help with either sourcing oxygen-related equipment or medical intervention.

He is the president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), which launched a teleconsultation platform for Covid-19 patients in India last year. It has now been ramped up and handles around a hundred consultations daily. "It is a big teamwork here," said Dr Jonnalagadda, who was born in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh.

AAPI has also raised more than US$500,000 (S$664,000) in an ongoing charity drive. "Members have been very generous and they all came out and opened their wallets," he told ST. Part of these proceeds have been used to purchase oxygen concentrators and the association hopes to send around 1,000 of these machines to India soon.

Many Indian-origin and foreign scientists, clinicians and other experts from across the world also coalesced last week to form India Covid SOS, a volunteer group engaged in supporting Indians through this crisis. The group recently put together a widely shared information pamphlet containing tips on how to manage Covid-19 patients at home, which has also been translated into several Indian languages.

"Seven days ago we didn't exist; now 500-strong, @IndiaCOVIDSOS is working 24/7 with partners on the ground on scientific/clinical support, fund raising, diagnostics, logistics, mental health," tweeted Dr Gautam Dey, one of its members, on Wednesday. "The road ahead is long, but if people choose to work together, we can do the impossible."

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