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As India Suffers COVID Catastrophe, Worried LA Diaspora Raises Funds — And Awareness

Nidhi Singh Rathore sits with her parents and brother with the Taj Mahal behind them.
Nidhi Singh Rathore as a child with her family outside the Taj Mahal. She now lives in Pasadena.
(courtesy of Nidhi Singh Rathore)
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Some 8,000 miles from her parents and brother in India, Nidhi Singh Rathore has been sitting in her Pasadena apartment worrying about a second wave in coronavirus that’s sickened millions back home. Like many in the diaspora, she’s struggling with what could befall loved ones and India's most vulnerable and poor residents.

“Honestly, in the past few days, it has been difficult to wake because you just don't want to [find] things that are worse than they were the day before,” Rathore said.

Dozens of people sit in chairs set apart in a large vaccination site in New Dehli.
People wait to get a dose of the Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the vaccination center of BLK-Max hospital in New Delhi on May 4, 2021.
(Prakash Singh
AFP via Getty Images)

Unable to fly back to help — travel between the U.S. and India is now restricted — Rathore has joined the 4.6-million-strong Indian American community in raising funds — and awareness. Until recent weeks, the pleas of patients’ families for hospital beds and oxygen were little covered in the media here.

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Rathore, a design researcher for the city of Los Angeles who came to the U.S. to study at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, mocked up a T-shirt that reads in Hindi and Urdu: “Help India Breathe.”

In a matter of days, she’s raised more than $1,000 in T-shirt sales and donations for the distribution of oxygen cylinders through the Hemkunt Foundation.

Part of Rathore’s motivation in designing T-shirts was to alert people outside of India to how dire the situation is there — contrary to the rosier picture painted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Premature Victory Called

In January, while Los Angeles County was struggling through a deadly surge, Modi declared his country’s triumph over COVID during a speech to the World Economic Forum.

Now, as Los Angeles opens up, India is trapped in its darkest moment of the pandemic. The surge followed large political rallies and religious festivals allowed by Modi’s government, which also exported vaccines when its own population was still largely unvaccinated.

“I started suddenly hearing about my family members getting sick,” said Shikha Bhatnagar, former executive director of the Artesia-based South Asian Network. “My aunt passed away in Delhi about a week-and-a-half ago and it happened very, very quickly.”

Shikha Bhatnagar with her aunt in India, who died late last month of COVID.
(Courtesy of Shikha Bhatnagar)

Bhatnagar, who emigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was three-years-old, said the diaspora’s strong response to the crisis in India stems from a culture that emphasizes extended family and community. That’s underscored by the fact that India receives more remittances — money sent back home by people living in other countries — than any other nation.

“Immigrants and children of immigrants still very much have one foot in the home country,” Bhatnagar said.

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Concern About Backlash

The devastating setback in India comes as the Indian American community is recovering from last month’s mass shooting at a Fed Ex facility in Indianapolis in which four Sikh American employees were among the eight people killed.

There is now new concern that Indian Americans and other South Asians will be targeted because of the devastating surge in India in the same way racists attacked Chinese people — or those perceived to be — as the pandemic expanded to the U.S. Bhatnagar pointed to a social media post warning people in New Jersey to stay away from the large Indian American population there because of COVID-19.

“That raises alarm bells that this could very quickly, in this environment, be swept up into an increase in hate crimes or hate incidents,” Bhatnagar said.

The South Asian Network, which provides mental health services, has seen an increase in calls from community members who have growing anxiety about world events, according to Bhatnager.

The impact of India’s crisis on the diaspora is also weighing on Payal Sawhney, who leads the Cerritos-based Saahas for Cause. Her organization is working to publicize the county’s mental health helpline and is also organizing virtual support groups.

“Our community is really in pain and is suffering at this time because most of us are immigrants,” Sawhney said. In the U.S., the Indian diaspora is about 68% immigrant. “We are living a split-family lifestyle where part of us are here and part of us are back home in India.”

Because so many have close relatives in India, Sawhney’s organization has also taken on the task of finding ways for those in the States to have food delivered to loved ones in cities such as Mumbai and New Dehli.

Taking Action

In Los Angeles, television writer Diya Mishra worries a lot about her large extended family in India. She keeps in touch with them over WhatsApp and Instagram, but has found additional relief by taking action. Fundraising efforts by Indian Americans have cropped up nationwide, so Mishra had her pick of initiatives to support.

She chose a GoFundMe project to buy oxygen concentrators, launched by several doctors of Indian descent, and asked her friends and professional network to pitch in. To her surprise, she’s raised over $11,500 at last count.

“It's not just donating,” Mishra said. “It’s bringing things into public conversations and recognizing a pain that's different from yours.”

The global pandemic, she said, has underscored how interconnected people are.

“L.A. might be opening up but the rest of the world isn’t,” Mishra said. “What’s happening elsewhere continues to affect us. And we have to care. Not just about India, but we have to care about everywhere.”