In mid-April, three of my cousins — Shashi, Manju, and Renu, all sisters living in New Delhi — died within 10 days of each other.
The eldest sister, Manju, was turned away from three medical clinics before she ran out of oxygen. The sole survivor of their nuclear family, Rajesh — or “Chotu” (“Little One”) — was left alone to manage the cremation of his three sisters.
As India confronts the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, this story is repeating again and again, with no end in sight.
The virus is ravaging communities and tearing apart families. India is gasping for air as its people die in the streets, awaiting admission to a hospital for a bed that will never be theirs. Hospitals are over capacity, oxygen tanks are running low, and millions of people are not receiving the care they need to stay alive.
A year ago, I was more concerned about my family here in the United States, which was then leading the world in COVID-19 infections. I often worried about my parents, small business owners in Maryland risking their lives daily to stay open.
Eventually, as we got vaccinated and the business pulled through, I became less anxious. But now, as a member of the Indian diaspora watching the pandemic reach unprecedented heights in our motherland, the horror has returned.
The U.S. is home to over 4 million Indian Americans. We’re a diverse population, but overall we’re the most affluent of all Asian American subgroups, with a median income of $119,000 in 2019. That’s in stark contrast to the paltry average income in India itself, which is barely $5,000 a year.
Indian Americans are now trying to use this privilege to help those back in India — a country of over 1.3 billion people.
Members of our community are mobilizing to purchase oxygen tanks, set up GoFundMe pages, and organize fundraising campaigns like “Help India Breathe” to support pandemic relief in India. Many of us are also supporting nonprofits like the Association for India’s Development, GiveIndia, and Sewa International.
These efforts will help save lives, but they’re also a bit like putting Band Aids on bullet wounds. We also need to embrace advocacy — especially around vaccine equity.
The U.S. has a strong grip on COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property, making it challenging for developing countries to produce or purchase less expensive generic versions. In India, just 2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Under pressure from global health advocates, the Biden administration recently announced that it would support a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to accelerate global production of the vaccine. That’s good news.
But we can’t simply wait for developing countries to produce their own vaccines. We need to push wealthy countries, which have purchased the vast majority of the world’s existing vaccine supply, to donate their surplus doses to countries in need.
By July, the U.S is expected to have a surplus of 300 million or more vaccine doses. Whatever we don’t need here should go to international organizations like COVAX, which can distribute them to developing countries like India that desperately need to increase their vaccination rates.
This isn’t just the right thing to do — it will also help protect people in the United States. The further the virus spreads globally, the more variants we see, which can make the vaccines we rely on less effective. No country will be free from COVID-19 as long as any country is still fighting it.
The pandemic has highlighted how interconnected the world is. As my own family’s tragedies have made all too clear, viruses know no borders — and neither do death, grief, and mourning. Life-saving vaccines shouldn’t either.