As COVID-19 infections and deaths surge in India, faith groups try to help

COVID-19 has sent India into a crisis of monumental proportions; here’s what faith-based organizations in the U.S. are doing to help

Amitoj Singh’s 94-year-old grandmother couldn’t breathe. COVID-19 had taken over her lungs, squeezing out the air, and it was time for her to go to the hospital. But, in Paonta Sahib — a small town six hours outside of New Delhi — there wasn’t a bed to be had.

“She is probably the most influential person (in the town) as a high court judge’s wife,” said Singh, “and even she couldn’t get a bed. We had to drive three hours away.” 

That trip took place in what Singh describes as a “dilapidated ambulance” with a malfunctioning oxygen tank. When they arrived at the hospital in Sarahan, they discovered a COVID-19 patient who had died there, outside, just moments before.

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The doctors “couldn’t even get him inside. They tried to resuscitate him here,” Singh told me via video call from the hospital’s parking lot three days later, as he was waiting for his grandmother to be discharged.

It’s night in India and the camera on Singh’s phone pans across the dark, empty parking lot to the small, two-story hospital and then back, sweeping over a funnel-shaped swath of blue light before his face fills the screen. 

As Singh and his family members stood there in the parking lot three days before, pleading with hospital staff to admit his grandmother, “They were like, ‘Why are you here? She’s 94,’” he recalled. “We had to tell them, ‘Listen, she’s a fighter. We know she’s going to get through.’ They were telling us, ‘Don’t hold us responsible.’” 

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen inside a car provided by a Gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, April 24, 2021. India’s medical oxygen shortage has become so dire that this gurdwara began offering free breathing sessions with shared tanks to COVID-19 patients waiting for a hospital bed. They arrive in their cars, on foot or in three-wheeled taxis, desperate for a mask and tube attached to the precious oxygen tanks outside the gurdwara in a neighborhood outside New Delhi. | Altaf Qadri, Associated Press

After she was admitted, Singh discovered that the place — which is a dedicated COVID-19 center — was short on supplies and staff. There are 25 small oxygen tanks, he said, but only nine regulators. The place isn’t administering any tests — no blood work, no scans — and, he added, there are no ventilators. There is a “limited amount of nurses” so “behaviors are not monitored or neutralized,” he said, adding that his grandmother kept pulling the oxygen mask off her face.  

Stories like this are common right now in India. People there are dying en route to hospitals that are too full to take them anyway. Burial grounds and crematoriums can’t keep up with demand and bodies are piling up.

No family has been left untouched by the country’s catastrophic second wave of COVID-19, which has been fueled by the nation’s weak infrastructure and exacerbated by a longstanding shortage of doctors and other health care professionals, as well as a lack of medical supplies.

And despite the fact that India is the world’s leading producer of vaccines and home to the biggest COVID-19 manufacturer on the planet, the shot is widely unavailable in the country.

The United States government is responding to India’s crisis by airlifting much-needed supplies, including pallets of oxygen, to the country. Numerous organizations — including faith-based ones — are also mobilizing to offer help.

Despite these efforts, many remain concerned that India might not get the vaccines critical to stopping the virus in its tracks. Health experts say that vaccinations would play a crucial role in preventing the development of new coronavirus strains in India — further battering a country already reeling from the pandemic — before fanning out across the globe. 

“What we have seen throughout this whole pandemic, is when you see the rise of new variants — and there are some new variants coming out of India — they never stay in the country where they originated, they become global very quickly,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told ABC. “This is one of the many reasons we have to bring the pandemic under control elsewhere because when those outbreaks happen the variants from those places end up in our country, as well.”

Despite the international community’s attempts to help, Jha noted that things are likely to get worse in India. Pointing to daily infection rates over 350,000, Jha warned these numbers could spiral to over 500,000 new cases a day “if things don’t get under control quickly.”

A relative of a person who died of COVID-19 reacts at a crematorium in Jammu, India, on Sunday, April.25, 2021. | Channi Anand, Associated Press

Faith-based groups offer help

Many international and American organizations are raising money and securing equipment to send to India. While the work of faith-based organizations looks similar, their efforts are rooted in religious values, which sometimes seem to inspire especially innovative steps.

For example, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has a unique initiative of drumming up doctors in America and Israel to offer telemedicine support to Indian ICU doctors and nurses, according to Michael Geller, the director of communications. 

The American and Israeli physicians will share their expertise with overwhelmed Indian doctors, weighing in on particularly difficult cases, he said.

The Joint Distribution Committee’s efforts reflect a number of core Jewish values, including the idea of areivut, interconnectedness or responsibility to one another; tikun olam, world repair; and “the talmudic concept that to save even one life is to save an entire world,” Geller said.

Leaders from other faith-based organizations offering help to India similarly emphasized that their work is not only meant to benefit members of their own religion.

Many mistakenly believe that sadaqah, charity, is to go to Muslims only, said Manzoor Ghori, executive director of Indian Muslim Relief and Charities, but “we do not differentiate when we help. I cannot ask if you’re a Muslim or a Christian. We distribute irrespective of who they are.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Ghori’s organization has given 325,000 meals to the needy in India and has distributed PPE and oximeters. Now, they’re focusing their efforts on fundraising, opening a COVID-19 ward at a hospital in Hyderabad and getting medical equipment — including oxygen concentrators — to Indians in need.   

Khalsa Aid — a Sikh organization — is also focusing on sourcing and sending oxygen concentrators. Portable oxygen concentrators, in particular, can help people get to the hospital without dying on the way, explained Omar Singh, national director for the United States arm of Khalsa Aid. 

The organization is also seeking transformers to address issues with voltage, and they’re trying to get more medical staff in India trained on how to use ventilators.

“Our motto is a line from our scriptures which is, ‘Recognize the whole human race as one.’ It’s easy to draw borders and designations among nations, but this is a worldwide pandemic. This could easily spread across the globe and cause more devastation,” Omar Singh said.

Indians are terrified — even indoors

Omar Singh’s comment points to the urgency of vaccinating as much of India’s population as possible. But, so far, the country has struggled with its vaccine rollout. Critics have faulted the government of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi for this problem, and some have also accused Western countries, including the United States, of vaccine hoarding.

Vaccine distribution should be “driven by need,” Jha told ABC. “Given that the need in India is the biggest, it probably should get the lion share.”

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Aditi Elhence, who currently lives in a suburb just outside of New Delhi, said she doesn’t anticipate being able to get a COVID-19 vaccine before July at the earliest. 

Elhence fears falling sick before then. While she and her 3-year-old daughter — who had COVID-19 last fall but recovered quickly — are staying indoors, the help employed by her upper class family goes out to get groceries and other supplies, risking exposing themselves and the household in the process. 

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There’s a sense of terror hovering over all Indians’ lives, even indoors, Elhence said, mentioning a colleague who hasn’t left her apartment in Mumbai but has still come down with COVID-19. On a video call, the sick colleague said she doesn’t know how she got the virus. “She wonders if she got it from going on the balcony,” said Elhence, adding, “with the disease being airborne, you don’t feel safe anywhere.”

Indians are living in “a constant state of fear and anxiety,” she said. “Everyone is just living each day at a time because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow — you might crumble and fall and die.” 

Elhence has lost several members of her extended family. Singh has, too. 

And within a day after being discharged from the COVID-19 center with no ventilators and not enough nurses — within 24 hours of making the journey back to her home in Paonta Sahib — Amitoj Singh’s beloved grandmother died.

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