Tennessee’s South Asian population reacts to COVID-19 crisis in India
Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue. (Photo: John Partipilo)
As COVID-19 ravages India, Nashville’s local Indian community has joined in fundraising efforts, but community members describe a nearly hopeless situation where there’s only so much they can do.
By most accounts, India responded rapidly at the beginning of the pandemic, closing its borders and banning all international flights in March 2020. By 2021, attitudes had relaxed, as many believed the worst of the pandemic was over. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed thousands at state election rallies, and in person religious events returned, including Ramadan and Kumbh Mela, the latter an event only celebrated every 12 years.
By April of this year, daily COVID-19 cases exploded to more than 400,000 a day and showed no signs of slowing.
Between Shalini Dixit, communications director at the India Association of Nashville (IAN) and co-founder of Shuddh Desi Radio, and her husband, ten family members have died in India due to COVID-19.
“It’s extremely heartbreaking,” she said.
COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of society, and bodies are piling up faster than they can be cremated. Instead of conducting funerals, Indians living overseas are focused on keeping their families alive as India’s healthcare system buckles.
IAN raised awareness for Sewa International USA, a nationwide Hindu-based nonprofit organization, and have raised over $7 million nationwide to send 400 oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies. Several other mainstream fundraisers have similarly raised funds, such as International Association for Human Values, which has raised nearly $400,000.
Local Indian restaurants and temples have joined the effort to raise funds as well.
Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue has collaborated with American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) to raise more than $100,000 for medical supplies.
Dr. Venkat Reddy, Chairman Board of Trustees for the Hindu Cultural Center of Tennessee, said they raised $50,000 within the first two days of announcing the Sri Ganesha fundraiser.
Money is pouring in, said Reddy, and they have contacts in India receiving shipments and making sure supplies are going to needy people.
While the fundraisers have raised a significant amount of funds in less than two months, families have heard little positive news about the situation developing in India and brace themselves for the worse.
Nashville residents are supporting their relatives in India, sending not just medical supplies but other basic necessities while they wait out the crisis. People are sharing fundraisers among one another and appealing on social media on behalf of their families in India
In Memphis, high school sophomore Smayan Sompalli learned his grandmother had contracted COVID-19 despite having followed every possible safety precaution. In order to spread awareness, he created a GoFundMe for Oxfam India, a nonprofit providing medical equipment during the crisis. Within a month, more than $6,000 flooded in.
Although there’s been reports of an estimated 800 COVID-19 variants in the country, the B.1.617 variant is being blamed for the rapid rate of infection and death. Memphis officials recently reported the same variant in Shelby County.
A shortage of medical staff has further crippled India’s healthcare system. Despite many healthcare professionals having received the vaccine, vaccinated individuals can still contract the virus but are more likely to recover. The country previously had 37.6 health workers for every 100,000 people, while the World Health Organization suggests having 44.5 at a minimum.
Families are now bracing themselves for the rest of India’s infrastructure to crumble. Prasant Dikshit, a project manager at an IT consulting firm and Dixit’s husband, said he’s expecting India’s food supply to run out as workers become ill.
“If some miracle doesn’t happen, people will start dying of other things, like hunger,” said Prasant.
Daily prayers are conducted at Sri Ganesha Temple, with special pujas, or offerings, for families affected by the crisis.
“It’s the biggest coping mechanism for Indians,” said Reddy.
As the host of Shuddh Desi, a radio station primarily in Hindi, Dixit conducts weekly programs focusing on positivity and hoping to help people cope through ongoing tragedy.
While the infection shows no signs of slowing, Dixit tries to avoid social media, hoping to avoid news of another death in the family. In a span of three weeks, she lost four family members.
“It’s happening so fast that we cannot comprehend that it’s happening,” said Dixit.
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