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As U.S. COVID-19 Cases Drop, India Experiences A Crisis


India's count of COVID-19 cases passed 20 million yesterday, and that's just the official tally. The number of cases and fatalities is actually suspected to be much higher. As the case numbers drop here in the U.S., Indian Americans are sounding the alarm that India's outbreak demands global attention. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Jackson Heights in Queens has a stretch known as Little India, marked by restaurants, jewelry shops and radiant fabric stores, like India Sari Palace, where I asked a saleslady her name...

DARSHI KIRTIBEN: I'm Darshi Kirtiben.

LAWRENCE: ...And what she's hearing from her relatives in India.

KIRTIBEN: He's have a son, COVID. His daughter-in-law have COVID. And after, my sister have COVID.

LAWRENCE: And I asked if they're OK.

KIRTIBEN: No. My sister, she passed away. She passed away in two days - like one week.

LAWRENCE: Her sister was 67. She died less than a week ago. We stopped the interview. But stories like that are common along this busy street, so is a sense of helplessness as friends and relatives call from India.

SHIV DASS: I talk every hour. Yeah, every hour.

LAWRENCE: Shiv Dass' phone rings, as if to prove his point. He's the president of the Jackson Heights Merchants Association, which he says has raised about $20,000 to buy oxygen in India. He's hoping to double that and send the money to the Indian prime minister's relief fund. At the same time, he thinks the government should've been better prepared for a second wave.

DASS: They had resources, but they didn't use the resources in time. They were not prepared for the second wave. Now second wave has come, and people are suffering.

LAWRENCE: Efforts like this are nationwide in Indian American communities, but also on a larger scale. Nishant Pandey leads the American India Foundation, part of a coalition of philanthropic groups.

NISHANT PANDEY: So far, we have commitments of $20 million. In the last three or four days, we have placed orders for 7,500 oxygen concentrators, both from the U.S. and from China. Of course, the need is much greater.

LAWRENCE: Pandey says he's worried that the crisis in India won't be over soon after what he saw last winter.

PANDEY: I decided to travel to India to be with my team and to show some solidarity back in December, January.

LAWRENCE: Pandey says he must have let his guard down because he caught COVID, so did his mother in a city 2,000 miles away. Back then, India's numbers were still pretty low, and they had space in hospitals.

PANDEY: So, you know, what I noticed, because I was in the hospital - two hospitals in two different cities, which are, like, 2,000 miles apart - I noticed that because the cases were so low at that time, hospitals had built this capacity, which they were trying to wind down.

LAWRENCE: He and his mother both recovered. But Pandey says the attitude at the hospitals made him worry the country was complacent after doing better than expected during the first year of the pandemic. The word is getting out. Dr Nalini Saligram is part of the same philanthropic coalition. She says it's not just Indian Americans donating.

NALINI SALIGRAM: It's not just the Indian community, but it's also, you know, deeper into the American community that we're reaching.

LAWRENCE: She's inspired by the generosity. But it's in everyone's interest. Letting COVID spike and mutate in India could reverse progress worldwide.

SALIGRAM: I hope this crisis will be solved. I hope vaccination rates will increase. And India will conquer this, and because it is a very big must for the whole world that India solves this problem.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.