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A Letter From India—and How to Help

By Jasreen Mayal Khanna

May 12, 2021

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Life in Mumbai “is nowhere near what it was like prior to the pandemic,” writes Jasreen Mayal Khanna.

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Life in Mumbai “is nowhere near what it was like prior to the pandemic,” writes Jasreen Mayal Khanna.

As India faces a horrific COVID-19 surge, a writer based in Mumbai sends a dispatch from a country besieged by grief yet still finding hope among citizens’ acts of kindness.

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As many countries throughout the world begin to slowly recover from the pandemic and carry out vaccination drives, India is caught in the throes of a merciless second wave. I write from Mumbai where the situation has improved in the last 10 days. Unfortunately, the rest of the country has not been as lucky.

The current spike in COVID-19 cases began climbing in April—at press time, India was reporting a seven-day average of 387,000 COVID cases per day and daily deaths nearing 4,000 with no signs of slowing down. India has now reported nearly 23 million COVID cases total, second only to the United States, and nearly 250,000 total deaths. The country’s notoriously underfunded healthcare system—the government spends less than 2 percent of its budget on healthcare—is buckling under the pressure and has left many without access to hospital beds, ICU care, and ventilators.

There is a massive shortage of oxygen across the country, and many have died because there literally wasn’t enough oxygen available to help them breathe. The capital city of New Delhi has been hit particularly hard, and heartbreaking news of inadequate wood to light funeral pyres fills us all with dread. I’ve compared the pandemic to a post-apocalyptic movie at various points during the last year, but it’s never felt truer than now.

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During this dark hour, there is some light, however. India’s ordinary citizens have risen to the occasion and are going out of their way to help each other. We’ve donated generously to organizations such as Mission Oxygen to obtain more oxygen from overseas, have used social media to procure additional medical resources such as hospital beds, medication, ventilators, and oxygen cylinders, and have cooked homemade meals for our ailing neighbors. Twitter and Instagram are flooded with calls for help, and people have created apps to aggregate the resources and make them accessible to those in need. Rickshaw drivers are transporting oxygen and patients free of cost and coconut sellers are giving free goods to those affected by the crisis. Sikh temples have transformed into oxygen drive-throughs for temporary relief.

Various industries are coming to the rescue as well. Fashion labels are raising funds for COVID relief work, the restaurant industry is cooking meals for those in need, and steel manufacturers are supplying their materials to hospitals. Indians have demonstrated the power of kindness and citizen-led action when the government was at best floundering in its pandemic response and at worst selfishly campaigning for election victories.

Despite being home to the largest vaccine producing company in the world, the Serum Institute, India doesn’t have remotely enough doses for its own people (India has only fully vaccinated about 6.4 percent of its population thus far, according to a Reuters tracker)—the demand for vaccines far outweighs the supply.

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I am able to work from home and am grateful for the health of my family and grateful that my mother contracted COVID-19 in March before hospitals were overwhelmed and oxygen became short in supply. Our state government increased medical infrastructure in a timely fashion and that’s why Mumbai is in better shape than the rest of the country.

But even here, life is nowhere near what it was like prior to the pandemic. The streets are relatively empty and even those stepping out for fresh air are being directed back home by local policemen.

Numerous cities across the country are in different stages of lockdown to contain the spread. Mumbai has no shops or malls open, requires grocery stores to be shut by 11 a.m. (yes, a.m.), and prohibits dining at restaurants and bars (although food establishments can deliver to people’s homes).

I rarely step out, order in food and groceries, and when something isn’t available, I go without. I am deeply aware of my privilege in a country where so many are dying, hungry and the true heroes, our healthcare and frontline workers, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. A colleague from New Delhi told me she is watching the dance of death and I can’t unhear her words. A lot of people around me are joining the people’s effort to help each other in the absence of government action. This citizens’ movement is the saving grace of some of the toughest times our country has seen. Despite it all, we are finding hope in each other.

How to help

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For travelers who are watching all this from afar and are heartbroken for a country so near and dear to the hearts of so many, there are several ways to donate and show your support.

The Hemkunt Foundation

The organization is doing incredible work to bring oxygen supply to those in need in New Delhi and Mumbai. They have set up oxygen centers and drive-throughs to distribute free oxygen to all.

To donate: Hemkuntfoundation.com

Plan India

The New Delhi–based organization is carrying out COVID relief in the form of distribution of food to low-income families and providing PPE kits to frontline workers and vaccination programs in various areas in rural India.

To donate: Planindia.org 

One Future Collective

One Future Collective is a feminist, youth-led organization working toward social justice. It has set up a program to provide mental health resources to frontline workers who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in India.

To donate: Milaap.org 

>> Next: U.S. to Begin Restricting Travel From India Amid Virus Surge

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