Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s days have been consumed the past few weeks with phone calls as early as 3 a.m. from people desperate for help with the COVID-19 crisis in India.
As the executive director and co-founder of Equality Labs, a grassroots organization serving South Asians across the country, she’s been fielding calls from members across the five boroughs with family members in India.
“We have so much grief and we'll have more grief to process,” said Soundararajan, who lives in Brooklyn. “The situation is urgent because people are dying in the middle of the street. People are dying on the way to the hospital. People are dying on the steps of the hospital.”
The COVID-19 crisis in India has taken a dramatic turn recently as positive cases exceeded 20 million on Tuesday. The world’s most populous country is the second to reach the COVID-19 milestone, after the United States, though it’s suspected by experts that the numbers are higher because of undercounting in rural communities and remote villages.
This second surge has crippled the country’s medical system as hospitals struggle with the lack of necessary medical supplies and equipment.
The severity of the situation has spurred Indian Americans across the diaspora — including about 711,000 in New York City, according to the Pew Research Center — to take action.
Equality Labs has been campaigning against what it calls a “vaccine apartheid” caused by the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property agreements on vaccines. Soundararajan blames these patent protections for the disparate accessibility of the vaccine between wealthier nations like the United States and countries like India. The group has also been mobilizing mutual aid for families struggling to get care and basic needs met in India as well as mental health and grief support.
“People are coming in droves because of how dire the situation is,” Soundararajan said. “There's no South Asian, Indian family that's untouched right now by this violence, which is just brutal and heartbreaking.”
For Lily Dasgupta, the threat hits particularly close to home.
“My entire family's back home — my mom, dad, brother, sister,” said Dasgupta, 35. “They all are doctors. They all are frontline workers there.”
Most of her family members are internal medicine doctors in Palwal, a town about 30 miles outside of New Delhi, which puts them in a particularly precarious yet critical position.
“[My dad] is serving the patient and I cannot be selfish enough to say he should not because that's a doctor duty he has, but at the same time [I’m] very scared,” said Dasgupta, who lives in Midwood.
This fear is unlike anything she’s experienced before, including earlier in the pandemic.
“I didn't realize that new variant is going to be that deadly, that dangerous, like people just dying on the road,” she said. “Right now, I feel very scared — very, very, panicked.”
Her biggest fear is receiving a phone call with the worst news. It’s something she’s already experienced with a close friend whose mother died three weeks ago when the situation looked quite different.
Though the woman’s oxygen levels were low, doctors were reassuring the family that she would be OK, Dasgupta said.
“We didn't even think it's gonna be that worse,” she said. “They incubated her and she passed away within those seven to eight days.”
Dasgupta said she’s trying to help by fundraising to buy medical equipment, such as ventilators, defibrillators and medical oxygen, for the hospital in Palwal.
Other New Yorkers are joining the cause by asking professionals to volunteer their time.
Zain Alam, Ajay Madiwale and Anjali Kumar started organizing Doctors in Diaspora last week, which will soon launch to connect doctors across the country to people in India needing care through telemedicine. They’ve recruited 160 doctors so far with about 25 of those doctors from New York, Madiwale said.
“One thing that we have realized is that even people with mild to moderate cases, they cannot get a doctor on the phone because all the Indian doctors are focused on treating the people in the worst situation,” said Madiwale, who lives in Brooklyn. “We are not replacing Indian medical care. We're seeking to augment and support it.”
While the crisis is impacting Indians across the diaspora, Soundararajan, the co-founder and executive director of Equality Labs, said the situation is a wake-up call for everyone.
“If we want to end this pandemic, we have to think about this as a global problem,” she said. “We will not be safe if variants and the pandemic is rampaging in other parts of the world because it will eventually come back to the United States.”