As an Indian American, my family has experienced the worst of this pandemic in two countries. For any of us to be safe, we all need vaccine equity.
In mid-April, three of my cousins — Shashi, Manju and Renu, all sisters living in New Delhi, India — died within 10 days of each other.
The eldest sister, Manju, was turned away from three medical clinics before she ran out of oxygen. The sole survivor of their nuclear family, Rajesh — or “Chotu” (“Little One”) — was left alone to manage the cremation of his three sisters.
As India confronts the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, this story is repeating again and again, with no end in sight.
The virus is indiscriminately ravaging communities and tearing apart families. India is gasping for air as its people die in the streets, awaiting admission to a hospital for a bed that will never be theirs. Hospitals are overcapacity, oxygen tanks are running low, and millions of people are not receiving the care they need to stay alive.
A year ago, I was more worried about my family here in the United States, which was then leading the world in COVID-19 infections. I stressed constantly about my parents, small business owners in Maryland risking their lives daily to stay open.
Eventually, as we got vaccinated and the business pulled through, I felt less anxious. But now, as a member of the Indian diaspora watching the pandemic reach unprecedented heights in our motherland, the horror has returned.
The U.S. is home to over 4 million Indian Americans. We’re a diverse population, but as a group, we’re the most affluent of all Asian American subgroups, with a median income of $119,000 in 2019. That’s in stark contrast to the paltry average income in India itself, which is barely $5,000 a year.
Indian Americans are now trying to use our privilege to help those back in India — a country of over 1.3 billion people.
Members of our community are mobilizing to purchase oxygen tanks, set up GoFundMe pages, and organize fundraising campaigns like “Help India Breathe” to support pandemic relief in India. Many of us are also supporting nonprofits like the Association for India’s Development, GiveIndia and Sewa International.
These efforts will help save lives, but they’re also a bit like putting bandaids on bullet wounds. We need to embrace advocacy, too — especially around vaccine equity.
For example, the U.S. has a stronghold on COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property, making it challenging for developing countries to produce or purchase less expensive generic versions. In India, just 2% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Under pressure from global health advocates, the Biden administration recently announced that it would support a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines to accelerate global production of the vaccine. That’s good news.
But we can’t simply wait for developing countries to produce their own vaccines. Wealthy countries, which have purchased the vast majority of the world’s existing vaccine supply, should donate their surplus doses to countries in need.
By July, the U.S is estimated to have a surplus of 300 million or more vaccines. Whatever we don’t need here should go to international organizations like COVAX, which can distribute them to developing countries like India that desperately need to increase their vaccination rates.
This isn’t just the right thing to do — it will also help protect people in the United States. The further the virus spreads globally, the more variants we see, which can make the vaccines we rely on less effective. No country will be free from COVID-19 as long as any country is still fighting it.
The pandemic has highlighted how interconnected the world is. As my own family’s tragedies have made all too clear, viruses know no borders — and neither do death, grief and mourning. Life-saving vaccines shouldn’t either.
Monica Grover is the project manager for NCRC’s Membership, Policy and Equity team.
Photo courtesy of Grover.