Editor’s Note: Chandrima Das is the senior director for Peace and Security Policy at the United Nations Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
“We are doomed.”
This was the text message I received from my cousin in Kolkata last week. These three words stopped me in my tracks and unleashed a wave of guilt and dread that I haven’t been able to shake since. As a first generation Indian American, I have been horrified by the situation in India and worried for my family members who live there.
My guilt stems from the fact that my 18-month old son, who contracted Covid-19 last month, is now healthy and happy, playing and laughing with his big sister in our home in Washington, DC. Luckily, his case was mild and we were able to get him the medical care he needed. But now, my cousin and his family in India have all been infected with Covid-19 and my elderly aunt is in the hospital.
India has surpassed 20 million reported cases — only second in the world to the US — and set world records of more than 400,000 new cases a day. Across the country, more than a dozen states are recording positivity rates of around 20%, and more than 250,000 people have died. While some point out that India still trails the US when it comes to the caseload and death toll, the numbers don’t tell the full story. Experts say that Covid-19 cases are being underreported in India, and that the actual death toll could be five times higher.
Over the past few months, the government downplayed the risk and severity of Covid-19 by allowing large-scale gatherings like religious pilgrimages to the Ganges and political rallies to take place.
Now, India is consumed with pleas for oxygen and the cries of those who have lost loved ones to the virus. Funeral homes are beyond capacity, and the smog that is so common in cities there is made even worse from the smoke of funeral pyres. In Kolkata, my aunt is lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her every breath. The virus has overwhelmed the Indian health care system and hospitals are running short of doctors, beds and oxygen.
While the responsibility of tackling Covid-19 continues to lie with the government of India, the United Nations and its agencies have stepped up and mobilized to help India fight the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO), UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) have collectively sent nearly 10,000 oxygen concentrators, 10 million medical masks and 1.5 million face shields to regions and deployed 2,600 public health specialists to help with the response. Similarly, UNICEF has not only delivered thousands of medical supplies, but the agency is also supporting remote learning for 12.3 million children across 17 states. UNFPA is providing guidance and refresher training to health care workers in maternity wards for women who have contracted the virus. They are also scaling up a vaccine education campaign across the country in different languages with unique messaging for pregnant and lactating mothers.
The World Food Programme (WFP) built an app so families can request food delivery from local markets, and introduced a grain-dispensing machine. Lastly, the UN Development Program (UNDP) is helping Indian health care workers safely dispose of bio-waste in a hundred of the worst affected districts in the country.
The UN is often referred to as the world’s 911 service. The challenges that have emerged during the pandemic are exactly why the UN exists and why it’s important to put our full support behind the organization.
The UN, of course, is not alone in responding to Covid-19 in India. We have also seen robust bilateral support, with President Joe Biden sending $100 million in urgent relief to combat the Covid-19 crisis in India. Of course, it’s also in America’s self-interest to contain the pandemic.
Despite the international community’s best efforts to support India during this time, the country and the world will continue to face extraordinary odds against this virus if vaccination efforts aren’t equitable. As of April, 87% of the administered vaccines went to high income countries while only 0.2% went to low income countries, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
To end this pandemic, we need to vaccinate everyone. India has a long way to go on this front, given that less than 3% of the population has been fully vaccinated so far. In February, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.”
It’s possible to end this deadly virus because we’ve done it before. In 2011, the WHO helped India eradicate polio. India is now reviving that infrastructure to carry out contact tracing and eventually provide vaccinations.
None of us is safe from Covid-19 unless all of us are safe. I am grateful that my son survived this terrible virus, yet I’m still deeply concerned about my aunt, and the rest of my family in India. Where we are born shouldn’t determine whether we survive this terrible disease. We need vaccine equity.