The South Asian Students Association (SASA) held a virtual conversation with several humanities and STEM professors to discuss the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in India on May 17. More than 50 students and faculty attended the event, some with personal connections to the country. The Zoom event complements other SASA efforts to raise donations for the country and raise awareness of the catastrophic Covid outbreak it is facing.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, India has logged nearly 26 million Covid infections and nearly 300,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic. However, these numbers are underreported and represent a fraction of the true reach of the virus. Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times in late April that “the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.”
The SASA event was hosted by SASA President Devaansh Mahtani ’22, Vice President Omisha Purohit ’23 and Political Chair Meenakshi Jani ’23, all of whom have family connections to India. Several times during the conversation, they stopped to mention how important donations can be in alleviating the burdens of the crisis. The club has raised nearly $3,000 so far from donations sent to the club’s Venmo account, @Covid_SASA. These funds will be sent to T-2 cities in India — cities with smaller population densities than T-1 cities like Mumbai.
“Most trusted fundraising organizations happen to be global, and a majority of these organizations focus on the more popular, familiar T-1 cities like Mumbai and Delhi,” Purohit told The Student. “Other organizations focus majorly on rural areas. For this reason, it is hard to direct funds towards helping people in T-2 cities, even though T-2 cities are in many ways some of the hardest hit cities by the pandemic. There’s never enough coverage about them, the funds rarely go to these cities and there isn’t much that is done to help out with the healthcare systems in place.”After an introduction from Jani, Bruce B. Benson ’43 and Lucy Wilson Benson Professor of Physics Jagu Jagannathan began the conversation. Jagannathan, whose family lives in Chennai, visited the country in November of 2020. Using an anecdote, he described the carelessness of some government officials in enforcing Covid safety precautions.
“At the airport, it was the job of this official to check that my PCR test is negative from three days ago,” he said. “And this person said, ‘It doesn’t say negative.’ I said, ‘Look, it says negative.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t bring my glasses today, does it say negative?’ and I was waved through. And that was the beginning of my actual experience of the care with which some agencies, some officials were managing the infection.”
Associate Professor of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies (SWAGS) Krupa Shandilya spoke next and highlighted that the severity of the crisis varies widely across the country, but certain states that have imposed strict lockdowns have seen the best results.
“My family is in Maharashtra state, and they seem to be doing a better job than most of the other states,” she said. “So far, they have imposed a very strict lockdown. And they are strict also about enforcing it. That is not the case everywhere. We hear stories about people burning bodies in Delhi, in parking lots, in gardens and any empty space that they can find … I just wanted to first say that the response is very uneven all over the country, and it is really marked by politics.”
Amrita Basu, the Domenic J. Paino 1955 professor of political science and SWAGS who has published extensively on women’s issues in India, proceeded to discuss the political nature of the pandemic in the country.
“Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi is directly responsible for this devastating situation,” Basu said. “In one respect, this isn’t surprising. Modi’s actions are very similar to many other strong-arm, often male, political leaders in their response to the pandemic, but the turn of events in India is somewhat surprising.”
“Every pandemic shines a spotlight on the priorities of every government,” she continued before stating what those priorities are. “In the case of the Modi government, his priorities are very clear. What’s clear is Modi’s global power ambitions.” Basu noted how India distributed vaccines to neighboring countries when it could not vaccinate its own population to compete with China. Additionally, Modi lifted campaign restrictions during the pandemic to pursue his electoral ambitions, she added.
“There are various state governments that have just held elections,” Basu said. “All restrictions on election campaigning have been lifted. Modi himself was actively campaigning and was actually congratulating crowds for coming out to these election rallies.”
Professor of American Studies Pawan Dhingra and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ashwin J. Ravikumar also discussed the politics involved in the crisis.
“What the government needs is more vaccines. And yet we sit on a stockpile of vaccines in this country. I believe President Biden has promised to donate AstraZeneca vaccines globally. How many of those will go to South Asia is unknown,” Dhingra said. Sharing vaccine patents, Dhingra said, would be an effective way to help India produce generic versions of the Covid vaccine, which is key to stopping the spread.
The effects of the spread, however, are not felt equally within the country. “As a country, the amount of investment by percentage in public health is staggeringly low,” Ravikumar said. “And those that underinvestment is felt disproportionately along caste lines, along class lines, and along religious lines.” Echoing Dhingra, Ravkimuar supported sharing the patent, though he noted it was not all that is required to slow the pandemic’s effects. After sharing the patent, policy changes, accomplished by regime changes in the country, would be necessary, Ravikumar said.
Assistant Professor of Biology Marc Edwards closed the panel by noting the efficacious nature of vaccines in responding to the crisis and how individuals might convince skeptical family members to get vaccinated.
“What I’ve started to talk about with my family is about safety and efficacy,” he said. “It can be difficult to run through each of the conspiracy theories and try to knock them back.” Instead, Edwards said, it would be more beneficial to acknowledge the concerns that people have about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but proceed to talk them through that.”
“Helping folks make their decision tree, getting across to them what it would take for them to want to take the vaccine, see what they need to know and, from there, giving them the information to put them in the driver’s seat of their own,” he said, is an important step in getting family members to take the vaccine.
As for how Amherst students can help the cause, Mahtani, Purohit and Jani agreed that donating is a great start. “I think that students need to keep raising awareness about the issue as a whole and especially the role that the United States has played in actively preventing Global South countries like India from accessing the resources that they need to overcome this crisis,” Jani added.
A link to a resource page made by SASA with information related to the Covid crisis in India, titled “Please help us save lives,” can be found here. The club also encourages donations to their Venmo, @Covid_SASA.