Austin American-Statesman: As COVID-19 surge devastates India, Austinites come together to send aid, prayers and hope
Kavita Tewari says she is haunted each day by the howl of ambulance sirens ringing through the streets near her home in New Delhi, India. For her and countless others in the South Asian country, the recent spike in coronavirus cases and deaths has been a crisis like nothing else she has experienced before.
“It’s a sad situation everywhere you look. I really don’t know what we can do for these people, but we really want to do some little bit,” Tewari said. “We have to do something.”
India suffers from a shortage of oxygen tanks, so Tewari and a small group of her friends in Austin are searching for ways to buy and ship medical devices that concentrate the oxygen in the air and make it available to treat COVID-19 patients. They have started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the effort.
The group is working with a nonprofit called Doctors For You USA to ensure that the medical devices are distributed to people who are most in need, according to the GoFundMe page.
“It seems like every five minutes, there is an ambulance that crosses the street outside. I don’t know where they are taking them. I have no idea where people are going, because the hospitals are full,” said Tewari, whose childhood friend, Ritu Khanna, lives in Austin.
Since mid-April, India has reported alarming numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths. More than 400,000 cases were reported Saturday, setting a new record for a daily increase in new cases globally. President Joe Biden last week pledged to send emergency supplies, including personal protective equipment, medication and oxygen.
Infectious disease experts have told USA Today that the current crisis in India could be linked to a combination of factors, including the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus — first detected in the United Kingdom — as well as a more lax attitude toward pandemic restrictions in recent months.
“It just spread like wildfire. Before you could blink, it was everywhere. Everybody was running to get a COVID test, and so many people got negative reports. But they turned out to be false negative reports,” Tewari said. “It just spilled out suddenly. It was not like a slow thing — it just exploded.”
In response to the crisis, people in the Austin area — some of whom said they have been affected personally — have started working to do what they can to send aid to family and friends overseas. Others are trying to find ways to cope with the feeling of helplessness.
The Indian population in Texas accounts for the largest portion — 28% — of the overall Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the state, ahead, according to a Pew Research study published last week. In Travis County, about 24,471 identified themselves as Asian Indian, according to U.S. Census data five-year estimates from 2017.
From 2000 to 2019, the Indian population in the U.S. grew from about 1.9 million to more than 4.6 million — amounting to a 146% increase, the Pew study found.
Tewari, who is in her 40s, is a homemaker and a mother to twins. She said she has siblings whose entire families have tested positive for the coronavirus, but feels fortunate that they are not experiencing severe symptoms.
Some of her friends and acquaintances, Tewari said, have not been so lucky.
“It is time for people to come together and make some good karma,” Tewari said. “Pray for India, please send us good vibes; I don’t know what works. We need those prayers more than anything.”
Tewari said her phone gets inundated with messages from people who are looking for help, and although she has been trying her best to not be overwhelmed, Tewari said the stress is taking a serious toll on her mental well-being.
“We are struggling to find oxygen for people who need it and they are gasping for breath. From the minute I get up in the morning and to the time I sleep at night, it’s so harrowing,” she said.
Ritu Khanna lives in the Avery Ranch neighborhood in Northwest Austin, and has been friends with Tewari since they attended school together in India. She and some of her friends in the Indian American community in Austin said the calls for help on messaging platforms like WhatsApp have become common in the past few weeks.
Khanna, who works in the city’s tech industry, said she has been staying up late trying to maintain communications with friends like Tewari, and others who live in the Indian subcontinent.
“When people reach out, they’re doing so with desperate cries for help, asking if we know any contacts who can arrange or help arrange for medical supplies. Most of it is for oxygen and plasma,” Khanna said.
With the entire country facing the shortage, however, Khanna said the cries for help have often times turned into those of painful mourning.
“We try to help, most of the time we are unsuccessful because there is no supply anywhere,” Khanna said.
Prayers for India
Pooja Sethi, a local activist, is part of the group that is trying to send medical supplies to India. She said she has been affected personally by the crisis, as she recently lost a family member to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Past tragedies have spurred her into action, but the current situation in India has left her in shock, she said.
“My own family was impacted this time; we lost a family member. I think this is the first time that I had organizations reach out to me to ask, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ I told them, ‘Nothing.’ I just kind of want to sit in my home,” Sethi said.
To show solidarity with India, Sethi started a virtual candlelight vigil and prayer ceremony last week. Each day at 8 p.m., she and other participants set a lighted candle on their porch to tap the collective healing of prayer, she said.
“That’s what the vigil is — to pray. We don’t know what else to do,” Sethi said.
She has received more than a hundred photos from people who also expressed their condolences for the lives affected by COVID-19 in India. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison have posted photos on social media showing their participation.
Adding to the pain and anxiety Sethi feels about the lives lost in India is fear that the South Asian community in the United States will be a target of the coronavirus-related racism that was directed toward people of East Asian descent last year.
“I’ve been really upset with how similar attitudes have been shown toward the East Asian community for the past year, and I’m very scared that it’s going to happen to the South Asian community,” Sethi said. “Instead of eradicating the racism, I’m scared that we’re potentially going to shift that racism to the next group.”
Megha Uppal, director of program development at South Asians’ International Volunteer Association, said the Austin-based organization is planning events to help its members cope through culture.
Uppal said she has reached out to organizations in India to collaborate on virtual music therapy sessions. Her group also has invited a therapist to speak to members about sharing their feelings and emotions over the crisis in India.
“We know it’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Uppal said.
And that type of mental health support is especially helpful to Uppal, whose father and grandmother — both of whom are U.S. citizens — are currently in New Delhi visiting family and friends.
“I don’t think I’ve felt this much pain in a while, and it’s surprising because I think I’m a pretty resilient individual,” Uppal said.
Race against time
The White House has announced a travel ban for foreign nationals from India looking to come to the U.S. — the restriction, which will go into effect this week, does not apply to U.S. citizens currently overseas.
Manoj Uppal, Megha’s father, was born in India but is now based in Dallas. He and his mother, Kanta, 82, went to New Delhi to visit friends and family months before the surge of COVID-19 cases shut down the country.
He originally booked a flight in April back to Ohio, where his mother lives. In a matter of days, however, the prices of flights shot up. He is set to come back to the United States this week, but he said the fear of not being able to return has plagued his mind.
“I’m afraid that tomorrow, that the United States might say that all of the flights are shut down until things calm down. If that happens, we will be stuck here. That is my fear, that we will get stuck so close to leaving,” he said.
Manoj Uppal said both he and his mother have been vaccinated, and have been staying indoors. He described how dramatically different the situation was in early February.
“Things were quite open; people did have masks on, but as for restaurants and traffic, you wouldn’t know there was anything different at that time,” he said.
Uppal, like Tewari, told the American-Statesman about how quickly things unraveled in India. He and his mother have cut off contact outside of their home, but they have watched the stream of news reports about the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Seeing firsthand how the disease can ravage a country, Uppal said he hopes people in the United States and elsewhere see the current crisis in India as a warning that the coronavirus pandemic is not yet over.
“I wish people would see some of the things that are happening here and see how this can go out of control so quickly,” Uppal said. “Even though things were not perfect eight or six weeks ago, this thing had snowballed into something that is so hard to control.”