Panel Describes Pandemic’s Impact in India

A trio of Elliott School alumni talked about futile searches for oxygen, hospital beds and more.

May 10, 2021

By B.L. Wilson

For weeks now, the media has inundated the public with harrowing images from India clouded by the smoke of funeral pyres, dying patients and panicked families outside hospitals as the country was hit by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies held a virtual panel discussion on India’s growing public health crisis, “India’s Second Wave COVID Crisis: Views from the Ground,” featuring GW alumni.

“It is a reflection of the deep heart break the GW community is feeling about India right now,” said Sigur Center Director Benjamin Hopkins.

Many at GW have close family and friends in India, and the crisis is taking an emotional toll on them, according to Deepa Ollapally, the Sigur Center’s associate director and a research professor of international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs who moderated the discussion. Dr. Ollapally said that the panel also offered an opportunity “to learn what we can do to help because many of us are feeling quite helpless frankly, watching what is unfolding."

Tanvi Banerjee, B.A. ’19, an associate with a leading nongovernmental organization in New Delhi, led off the discussion. “The situation is abysmal,” she said. “If you are looking for oxygen cylinders they’re not there,” she said. “If you’re lucky to find a hospital bed, chances are you’re probably going to die at a hospital because of the lack of oxygen.”

She was joined on the panel by Rahul Bahtia, M.A. ’19, security studies program coordinator and research assistant at Carnegie Institute for Peace India; Vaibhav Jain, B.S. ’19, a supply chain manager with a steel company in India; and Akshaya Sadras, B.S. ’18, currently working on her degree in law and at the family law firm in Andhra Pradesh, India. Paul Wahlbeck, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, gave opening remarks, expressing solidarity with the people in India suffering in this crisis and with the GW students, alumni, faculty and staff who have ties with India. 

Each of the panelists described grim hunts for oxygen, which Mr. Bahtia explained was mainly a supply chain problem with bottle necks in getting medical supplies and equipment from factories to cities and towns. New Delhi, for example, needed 700 metric tons of oxygen but until the final days of the week only half had been delivered.

Because of the shortage, black markets charging exorbitant prices have sprung up, and people who don’t need oxygen at a given moment hoard supplies. Some non-governmental organizations, community groups and caste networks have stepped up to the challenge, providing oxygen at community and street centers.

Ms. Sadras said she fears the situation may be worse in rural areas of the country because people don’t “understand social distancing,” are “scared to get tested” and “stay at home even when they have symptoms because there’s this stigma of being COVID positive.”

“There have been instances [where] the whole family has been thrown out of the village,” she said.  “There are a lot of people dying in villages, but we don’t see it in the news. I think that is pretty dangerous.”

It is a situation in which neither the central government of India nor various states were prepared for the second wave, said Mr. Bhatia. “It’s kind of taken them by surprise,” he said. “They didn’t expect it to be such a large wave.”

State run systems, Mr. Jain said, “have completely broken down, and it has been replaced by medieval networks of family connections and caste networks” that are relied on for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and medicines. If somebody falls sick, the whole family has to go out, one person to get the medicines. One for oxygen. One is going from one hospital to another looking for a bed. The state is completely broken down. The family is stepping in. The state is completely broken down.”

India has gone from being seen as a rising power to an object of humanitarian concern and from promising to supply vaccines to developing countries to being unable to provide vaccines for its own citizens, Dr. Ollapally said.

Mr. Bhatia said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious foreign policy may have been significantly weakened in the short term, but India has the potential to rise once again if it is able to course correct and quickly revive its economy.

Ms. Banerjee agreed and added: “This is an example of what happens when a country does not align its soft power ambitions with its domestic realities.”

Kavita Daiya, a professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies who shared moderator duties, asked what people in the United States could do to make a difference for people in India.

Mr. Jain urged the virtual audience to advocate that Congress provide aid in a form that goes directly to Indian states and organizations and bypasses the central government so that it will get to those most in need of assistance.

Panelists encouraged people to donate but to investigate the reliability and effectiveness of organizations before contributing.





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