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'Each Hour Matters': Bay Area Couple Fundraises for India's Oxygen Crisis

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Patients infected with COVID-19 can be seen wearing Oxygen masks place amid the rising concerns over lack of Oxygen on April 24, 2021 in New Delhi, India. With recorded cases crossing 300,000 a day, India has more than 2 million active cases of COVID-19, the second-highest number in the world after the U.S. A new wave of the pandemic has totally overwhelmed the country's healthcare services and has caused crematoriums to operate day and night as the number of victims continues to spiral out of control.
Patients infected with COVID-19 can be seen wearing oxygen masks on April 24, 2021 in New Delhi, India. With recorded cases crossing 300,000 a day, India has more than 2 million active cases of COVID-19, the second-highest number in the world after the U.S. (Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

For the fifth straight day, India set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections on Monday.

Social media has been filled with desperate pleas from those in India seeking hospital beds and oxygen concentrators. One journalist, Vinay Srivastava, even live-tweeted his declining oxygen levels until he died. And on Sunday, the National Security Council announced that the United States will now make more medical aid available to India in an effort to fight the spike in COVID-19 cases.

For Indians and Indian Americans in the Bay Area, what many are experiencing in daily life — the excitement of getting the vaccine and reopening businesses — contrasts starkly with the reality of family and friends sick and dying in New Delhi and other parts of the country.

“Every Indian you speak to will tell you we know somebody who has passed away in the last few days because they weren't able to find a hospital to take them — or they weren't able to get access to oxygen,” said Palo Alto resident Kanika Mediratta, who has family and friends in New Delhi.

“Just 10 minutes ago I got a call from one of my very close friends asking if we knew of any supply for a patient [in India] who has oxygen only for the next three hours,” Mediratta said. “Without that, they will die.”

Mediratta's brother-in-law — her husband Rohit’s brother — is a neurosurgeon at Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, and told the Palo Alto couple of his firsthand experiences with the region's severe oxygen shortage that was being mirrored across India. So the Medirattas decided to take action.

They started a GoFundMe to raise money for the Save Life Foundation, a nonprofit working with the New Delhi government. In about 48 hours they raised enough money to procure 200 units of oxygen. They've also created the website CovidReliefIndia.com which explains the severity of India's need for oxygen and how people can help.

It's expected that this first shipment of oxygen units will start reaching the people in need in public hospitals "in the next week or so," said Rohit Mediratta.

Their campaign has been amplified by people including Bay Area Congressman Ro Khanna, whose California District 17 encompasses Silicon Valley. Thus far, through their networks, the couple say they've seen people donating money from around the world — Australia, UK, the Middle East. “People who know people, who know people, have been contacting us,” Kanika Mediratta said.

In addition to the Save Life Foundation, the Medirattas are also directing donations to the humanitarian nonprofit organization Sewa International. For those unsure which place to donate to, Kanika Mediratta gave some guidance: “If you're looking to donate specifically for the Delhi region, then Save Life Foundation is working with the Delhi government, and is probably the biggest impact that we will have,” she said.

But for Bay Area residents wanting their donations to go beyond government agencies, or into other cities and regions in India, Sewa International is a good choice, say the Medirattas. Both organizations are registered nonprofits in the U.S.

“Thousands of people are dying every single day" in India, said Gitesh Desai, a Texas-based spokesperson for Sewa International on the COVID-19 crisis. According to Johns Hopkins University data, on April 25 alone there were 2,812 deaths.

Desai said Sewa International is buying oxygen concentrators and has already bought 400 that will be given to hospitals in India. With additional funds raised, Desai said they will be providing food and medicine to families as well as other basic needs to orphanages and senior citizen homes.

“We all want our money to get used in the best way possible and as quickly as possible, because each hour matters right now,” Kanika Mediratta said.

She added that it's not just hours that count right now — it's minutes. "We don't have till Monday morning, or Tuesday morning, for action to be taken. If you have the capacity to contribute, to participate, to volunteer, we need the help and we need it now."

"We don't have a moment to lose right now," she said.

“Whatever we can do to help, if we can do anything at all, it's still not enough," her husband Rohit added.

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The Severity of COVID-19 in India

As of April 25, the country had over 16.9 million recorded cases, second behind only the United States. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.

Yet experts say this toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many COVID-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.

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The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line — sometimes on the roads outside — waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that’s being sold on the black market at an exponential markup.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen,” in a statement made Saturday by India's Solicitor General Tushar Mehta before the Delhi High Court.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister only in January had declared victory over COVID-19, and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy" as a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

This article includes additional reporting from the Associated Press.

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