India’s Covid surge and the accompanying humanitarian calamity has left the nearly 4.8 million people strong Indian-American community reeling. Few, if any, from this community have been left untouched, and feelings of grief, fear, and helplessness are widespread, as people struggle to provide succour to their loved ones back home.
Yet, the past few weeks have also seen an unprecedented mobilisation by Indian-Americans to provide assistance to India in her time of need. This demonstrates the considerable clout of the community and points to some ways in which it can help shape the relations between, and trajectories of, both countries.
Covid efforts from abroad
During the hard-fought 2020 US presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican parties assiduously courted Indian voters. Indian-Americans, who tend to skew Democratic, came out in strong support of President Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates. In April, as the magnitude of the health crisis in India became clear, Indian-Americans asserted their growing political confidence by demanding that the Biden administration come to India’s aid.
In addition to public calls on social media, established Indian-American organisations reached out to the White House and members of the US Congress. Congresspersons of Indian origin, such as Pramila Jayapal, whose parents live in India, and Ro Khanna rallied behind these calls. Within a few days, the Biden administration reversed course from its earlier, sluggish response and announced the dispatch of medical supplies and raw materials for vaccines to India.
Several Indian-American organisations have also joined forces with NGOs advocating for global health equity to ask for intellectual property waivers for Covid-19 vaccines. This has been a long-standing ask of the Indian government at the World Trade Organization (WTO). While the US tends to be very protective of intellectual property rights, the Biden administration eventually announced that it would support such a waiver. The path to an actual waiver remains bumpy, and the Indian-American community will have to continue to work with other global advocacy groups towards greater vaccine access and equity — not just for Indians, but for people around the world. India’s experience has shown that a global pandemic needs global solutions.
As India’s own central government remains strikingly absent in Covid relief efforts, Indians themselves have rallied to support each other. Social media has become a hotbed of crowd-sourced information on where people can find access to oxygen, hospital beds, and medicines. These homegrown efforts have served as an inspiration for Indians abroad.
Armed with a combination of desperation, ingenuity, and yes, privilege, Indian-Americans have moved quickly to develop response capacities. They have built detailed databases of resources for those seeking hospitals and emergency services and organised the purchase and delivery of oxygen cylinders. Faith-based progressive organisations like Hindus for Human Rights have advocated for grassroots, poverty-alleviation efforts. Others, like Indiaspora, have created a dashboard of information and organised fundraisers. As Indians abroad struggle with the mental and emotional toll of their inability to be with their loved ones, some groups have worked on finding guidance in collective prayer and discussing pathways to emotional well-being.
Failure of healthcare
Even as India grapples with the unfolding calamity, we must also reflect on the systemic failures that the crisis has unmasked. The current situation did not come out of the blue. It is the product both of decades of negligence in India’s health sector and the current government’s malfeasance. Most members of the Indian-American community come from urban, upper-caste, upper-income backgrounds; yet, India itself is mired in crippling inequities – inequities that the gleaming corporate offices in Bengaluru can neither hide nor compensate for. For example, India has one of the world’s lowest rates of public expenditure on health, at about 1.3 per cent of GDP. This year has shown us that even the most well-resourced and well-connected cannot be protected when a fragile infrastructure confronts a storm. Indian-Americans understand this well.
The year 2020 cast a harsh light on the inequities and weakness of the American healthcare system, and led to demands for reforms to a system that, for all its wealth, excludes too many. Similarly, there is a pressing need for Indian-Americans to support efforts to build a more accessible and sustainable health infrastructure in their country of origin. In the absence of greater equity, it is only a matter of time before the country confronts another horrific tragedy. Non-profit organisations like the Association for India’s Development (AID) and Vibha have long connected Indians abroad to sustainable and equitable development efforts taking place in the subcontinent; their work attains even greater importance in the current situation.
Holding governments accountable
Another lesson of the crisis is that government matters. This, too, is something that was realised by many Americans during the pandemic. The tragic outcomes of the Donald Trump administration’s missteps and callousness are well-documented. Similarly, but with more dire consequences, the Narendra Modi government’s actions and inactions have inflicted an astronomical cost on the people of India.
While rightly demanding that the US government be a true ally to the Indian people, Indian-Americans should also join hands with those in India who are seeking transparency, accountability, and truth. Without a thorough and open understanding of what went wrong and what can be done to avoid a repeat of these missteps, no long-term remedy to India’s problems is possible.
Indian immigrants have come to the United States with many distinct advantages. They have been the direct beneficiaries to the opportunities afforded to them by a once-proud, even if always flawed, democracy. India had long been known to the world for its traditions of pluralism and inclusive debate, traditions, which served as an aspiration for many developing countries. It also has considerable human capital and is a vaccine manufacturing and distribution powerhouse. Over the last decade, many members of the Indian-American community have taken pride in the story of a rising and muscular India, and have associated this supposed success with the exclusionary and authoritarian nationalism that has taken hold in the country.
Today, India’s calamity has made it the pity of the world, and its efforts to project itself as a worthy, global power lie in tatters. This moment can serve as a wake-up call to Indians abroad to explore their own understanding of, and responses to, the path that India has been on. Day after day, I find solace in the inspiring stories of Indians helping each other through the pandemic. This gives me hope that the resilience and creativity of the Indian people can, once again, lift the country up. The Indian-American community can, through sustained and thoughtful action, be a partner in the efforts to rebuild and rejuvenate India.
The author is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. She previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Her twitter handle is @Bee_the_Wonk.