It was the text message I received from my cousin in Kolkata last week. Those three words stopped me in my tracks and unleashed a wave of guilt and terror that I haven’t been able to shake off since. As a first generation Indian American, I was horrified by the situation in India and worried for my family members who live there.
My guilt stems from the fact that my 18 month old son, who contracted Covid-19 last month, is now healthy and happy, playing and laughing with his big sister at our home in Washington, DC. Fortunately, his case was mild and we were able to provide him with the medical attention he needed. But now my cousin and his family in India have all been infected with Covid-19 and my elderly aunt is in the hospital.
India has surpassed 20 million reported cases – only the second in the world after the United States – and set world records of more than 400,000 new cases per day. Across the country, more than a dozen states have positivity rates of around 20% and more than 250,000 people have died. While some point out that India still lags the United States in terms of the number of cases and the number of deaths, the numbers do not tell the whole story. Experts say Covid-19 cases are underreported in India and the actual death toll could be five times higher.
In recent months, the government has downplayed the risk and severity of Covid-19 by allowing large-scale gatherings like religious pilgrimages to the Ganges and political rallies to be held.
While the responsibility to fight Covid-19 remains with the Indian government, the United Nations and its agencies have stepped up and mobilized to help India fight the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have collectively sent nearly 10,000 oxygen concentrators, 10 million medical masks and 1.5 million face shields in the regions and deployed 2,600 public health specialists to help with the response. Likewise, UNICEF has not only delivered thousands of medical supplies, but the agency also supports distance learning for 12.3 million children in 17 states. UNFPA provides counseling and refresher training to maternity health workers for women who have contracted the virus. They are also developing a vaccine education campaign across the country in different languages with unique messages for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
The World Food Program (WFP) created an app for families to request delivery of food to local markets and introduced a grain distribution machine. Finally, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is helping Indian health workers safely dispose of bio-waste in around 100 of the country’s most affected districts.
The UN is often referred to as the world’s 911 service. The challenges that arose during the pandemic are exactly why the UN exists and why it is important to put all our support to the organization.
The UN, of course, is not the only one responding to Covid-19 in India. We have also seen strong bilateral support, with President Joe Biden sending $ 100 million in emergency relief to tackle the Covid-19 crisis in India. Of course, it’s also in America’s best interests to contain the pandemic.
Despite the international community’s best efforts to support India during this time, the country and the world will continue to face extraordinary odds against this virus if vaccination efforts are not fair. In April, 87% of vaccines administered were destined for high-income countries, while only 0.2% went to low-income countries, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
To end this pandemic, we need to vaccinate everyone. India has a long way to go on this front, given that so far less than 3% of the population has been fully immunized. In February, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “At this critical time, vaccine fairness is the biggest moral test before the world community.”
It is possible to end this deadly virus because we have already done so. In 2011, WHO helped India eradicate polio. India is reviving this infrastructure to conduct contact tracing and possibly provide vaccines.
None of us are safe from Covid-19 unless we are all safe. I am grateful that my son survived this terrible virus, but I am still deeply concerned about my aunt and the rest of my family in India. Where we are born should not determine whether we survive this terrible disease. We need vaccine equity.