As COVID-19 storms across India killing 4,000 people per day, The Indian Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is funding vaccinations and supplying millions of dollars worth of food and medical supplies through partner charities.
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday his government was “on a war footing” as it responds to the pandemic’s spread.
“It is heartbreaking to see so many people and families suffering from COVID,” said Elder John Gutty, India Area Seventy for the church. “We are grateful for the opportunity to help provide some relief to many who are suffering and to ease the pressure experienced by front-line medical workers.”
The church, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, will provide $4.15 million to partner organizations that work throughout India, where its official name is the Indian Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church’s partners will use the money to buy locally and distribute thousands of medical supplies including ventilators, oxygen concentrators and hospital beds, as well as food packets and personal protective equipment.
“The financial commitment demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge and our continued desire to do what we can to assist the people of India,” Latter-day Saint Charities Vice President Shawn Johnson said. “We’re hopeful that our donation can be a big help in moving towards that and helping to relieve suffering. In many cases the vaccine represents hope, in addition to the end of suffering, so we’re grateful to be able to participate in that, too,” he said of previous donations. “It’s important to us that India is a priority for that effort.”
Money for vaccines
The church was the largest private sector donor to COVAX at the time Latter-day Saint Charities donated $20 million in February to the global campaign to provide 2 billion COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 to people in low- and middle-income countries, including India.
“The $20 million donation from Latter-day Saint Charities has been transformational,” Emily Brouwer, managing director of the Northwest Region of UNICEF USA, said in a statement provided to the Deseret News. “As COVAX is the only program in the world that provides access to COVID-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, the importance of their support cannot be overstated.”
The second wave of COVID-19 infections in India has strained India’s health care systems, creating shortages in critical-care beds, medical equipment and oxygen, and making it difficult for hospitals to accommodate critically ill patients, according to UNICEF India.
“The panicked hunt for hospital beds is a common sight across the country,” UNICEF India officials said in an email response to the Deseret News. “Hospitals in various parts of the country have been sending SOS messages for oxygen as demand rapidly outstrips supply.”
Those officials said the pandemic has transformed from a health crisis into a broader and more complex phenomenon with immediate and medium-term social and economic consequences on vulnerable communities. For example, children are losing parents and caregivers and going without other health care while hospitals and doctors grapple with COVID-19.
They also are at greater risk of violence and malnutrition, as lockdowns shut them off from their vital support networks, the officials said.
Elder Gutty reported the needs to the church’s Asia Area officials, confirming that media reports and images of India’s COVID-19 health crisis are accurate.
“There’s real suffering,” said Paul Hansen, Asia Area director of temporal affairs. “There are some regions that are worse than others, of course, where the need for oxygen is acute and urgent. The displacement of migrant workers has also created pressure on food supplies and transportation.”
The church’s donation will address directly some of those problems in multiple states, including Telangana, where the church is building a temple in Bengalaru. The funds will go to Latter-day Saint Charities’ longtime international partners — Project Hope, CARE, ADRA and Catholic Relief Services — that have boots on the ground in India where the church’s charity has few staffers.
“Without our partners, we could not operate at the scale we are talking about,” Hansen said.
How the partnerships work
The mix of partners also allows the church’s funding to help in places across the nation of 1.36 billion people, with projects planned in the state of Maharashtra and in Delhi, the capital where as many as 30,000 people live within a square mile.
“These partners each have their own networks,” said Johnson, the Latter-day Saint Charities vice president, noting the long-standing credibility that they have throughout India with these partners. “There’s a trust there with these four in particular, but their ability to do good work and quality work in India and have trust not only with us but some built up trust and credibility with government contacts as well.”
The church also has Elder Gutty and other Indian church leaders and members who are working with government agencies like the health ministry in New Delhi and the health department in the state of Telangana as well as local relief organizations, said Annie Wong, the church’s Asia Area director of public affairs.
Area leaders proposed the project to church headquarters based on the needs they saw, and the the church’s First Presidency, the presiding government body of the church, approved it.
“Where possible, we’re prioritizing finding these items locally in the economy there,” said Johnson, the Latter-day Saint Charities vice president. He called the project a significant investment.
“We engage both global partners and then work really closely with church areas to understand what the needs are locally,” Johnson said, “and then when you have a situation like this that’s just enormous — the population is enormous and the needs are great, especially with our driving principle to help those that are most vulnerable in a situation like this — the challenge is getting to them. The partnerships with those on the ground locally becomes really the key in being able to diversify, spread out the response and be able to help as many people as possible.”
Latter-day Saints in India, where the church has 14,500 members in 46 congregations, and Latter-day Saint Charities already have been involved in providing some aid. The church partnered with the National Council of Churches in India to supply and distribute 1,500 food kits on Tuesday and Wednesday to displaced migrant workers at seven locations in the North Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where unemployment is high and the community is under a lockdown due to the COVID-19 surge.
Each food kit contained a month’s supply of grains with cooking oil and bottled water.
“The church is watching the situation closely, to determine how we might help in the coming months,” Wong said.
Additional help coming
The need for vaccinations in India is immense: Less than 1 % of all COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in low-income nations, according to the BBC.
“UNICEF’s role in the COVAX facility is to turn vaccines into vaccinations — getting the vaccine from the warehouse where it is manufactured into the arms of people around the world, and this work simply cannot be done without funding,” Brouwer said.
Supply, demand, distribution and funding issues have put COVAX behind schedule. So far, it has provided vaccinations to 50 million people, including 10 million doses in India, UNICEF India told the Deseret News.
However, private-sector donations are gaining momentum.
“In addition to the remarkable gift from Latter-day Saint Charities, we have seen business leaders stepping up in an equally inspiring way,” Brouwer said.
Last week, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Away CEO Jen Rubio personally committed to provide $25 million to COVAX. They challenged other tech and business leaders to raise another $100 million, and an anonymous donor has committed another $10 million, Brouwer said.
“This kind of transformational funding will have a seismic impact on UNICEF’s ability to deliver COVID-19 vaccines around the world to low- and middle-income countries,” she said, “and we hope to see even more leaders step up in such an inspiring and heroic way. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Overall, some 157 million people in India have been vaccinated, according to UNICEF India. That leaves more than 1.2 billion people in need, with major challenges remaining to fund and distribute vaccines, especially to the rural areas, where most of the population lives.
UNICEF is using social media and other methods to counter misinformation and promote the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing and handwashing. New multimedia content is produced weekly in multiple languages for broadcast on digital channels and media, especially at the state level.