fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘It’s everywhere. It’s every family. I get depressed by the hour.’ Mass. residents from India, Brazil watch from afar as COVID-19 horrors unfold

In Shrewsbury, volunteers Kumar Subramanian (left) and Geena Virmani called another volunteer in India as they tried to locate a hospital bed for a patient they are trying to help.
In Shrewsbury, volunteers Kumar Subramanian (left) and Geena Virmani called another volunteer in India as they tried to locate a hospital bed for a patient they are trying to help.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Her uncle is dead and her parents both fell ill, victims of the second COVID-19 wave in India that in the past week has produced daily averages of 371,000 new cases and 3,300 deaths.

Shipra Dubey has to monitor the situation from her home more than 7,000 miles away in Natick, where she used FaceTime Saturday to speak with her 82-year-old father from his hospital bed.

“People are dying left and right,” said Dubey, whose father shares a room with other patients. “He said people are dying unattended.”

The suffering in India, which has overtaken Brazil as the pandemic’s global epicenter, has sown fear among the population, which is facing drastic shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, and medications. The crisis has produced scenes of widespread grief with aerial footage documenting the smoke from funeral pyres rising.

Advertisement



The tragedy extends beyond India’s borders as the desperation and anguish are transmitted to loved ones in Massachusetts and beyond through WhatsApp, social media, and phone calls. Further, the Indian virus surge is a warning that the pandemic could still produce a vaccine-resistant variant, public health experts have said.

India reported nearly 402,000 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, and more than 22,300 Indians died of the virus over seven days that ended April 26, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Anu Kothari traveled to Lucknow in northern India late last month to care for her father, Kaushlendra Nath Gupta, 95, who died on April 29.

Speaking Sunday from Lucknow, Kothari said Gupta’s death was peaceful and she doesn’t believe he had COVID-19. But the worsening pandemic has left her home country unrecognizable, she said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kothari, a resident of Long Island, N.Y. She said she’s heard stories about patients arriving at hospitals in respiratory distress only to learn there are no beds.

Advertisement



“There’s no room so they’re sitting in the corridor or in their car and they just die. Nobody can even attend to them,” said Kothari, who is in Lucknow with her son, Dr. Dhruva Kothari of Cambridge.

Dhruva Kothari said India needs a “good supply of medicines at an affordable price.”

Desperation has created black market price gouging for remdesivir, a COVID-19 treatment, with reports of single vials selling for 20,000 rupees, the equivalent of about $270, Anu Kothari said.

“But you don’t get even the medicine,” she said. “People are putting water in the vial, putting the label on it, and selling it.”

Vijeta Deshpande, a research specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, shared another remdesivir story from his hometown of Nashik in western India, where a friend’s father was hospitalized for coronavirus.

The man needed remdesivir, Deshpande said, but the hospital didn’t have the medication and his friend had to procure it on his own.

The friend went to a distribution center, where he waited 15 hours among a crowd of 200 to 300 people, some of whom were infected with COVID-19, to get the medicine, Deshpande said.

Once his friend got the remdesivir, Deshpande said, he concealed the medication under flatbreads he packed in a lunchbox for his father out of fear that someone might steal the doses.

India’s crisis, Deshpande said, has made him feel helpless, saying there is little he can do to help from Massachusetts beyond making charitable contributions.

Advertisement



“That hurts me and makes me feel very powerless,” he said.

Members of the Brazilian community in Massachusetts have confronted similar feelings during the pandemic.

Cris Sciaba, who lives in Framingham, said life in Brazil is even more difficult now than it was when she left São Paulo 30 years ago.

She said her brother, a doctor in Brazil, had COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic but recovered. Her mother, also in Brazil, lives in fear of infection, Sciaba said.

“My family has been very isolated,” she said.

Brazil has suffered under the leadership of its president, Jair Bolsonaro, Sciaba said, who dismissed the virus as a “little flu.”

More than 403,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, the largest death toll worldwide outside of the United States, where the virus has killed more than 573,000 people.

Framingham City Councilor Margareth B. Shepard, who is originally from Brazil, said she knows about 10 families in Massachusetts who lost nearly all their relatives in Brazil and many who asked for help raising money to pay for private medical care for loved ones who could not otherwise get treatment for COVID-19.

“In Brazil, entire families die, not just one person,” she said Sunday.

Brazilians in Massachusetts have scrambled to support families back home financially while monitoring for misinformation about vaccines, she said.

“Having more here, it makes your heart bigger,” Shepard said. “The pandemic make us more aware of the needs of people.”

In a sign of improving conditions, US officials last Tuesday loosened restrictions on travel from Brazil by giving students planning to enroll in fall courses, some academics, journalists, and others permission to apply to enter the country.

Advertisement



But for India, President Biden on Friday announced new travel restrictions, which bar most non-US citizens from entering the country beginning Tuesday.

In Cambridge last Wednesday, demonstrators gathered outside Moderna’s headquarters to demand the US support waiving the patents for coronavirus vaccines and to urge Moderna to join a WHO program for sharing patent-protected information about COVID-19 treatments.

“It’s easy and tempting to see this as another country’s problem because the Indian government has had a huge hand in this, but that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility in the United States,” said Ria Mazumdar, a Cambridge resident whose aunts, uncles, and cousins live in India.

Writing for the news website South Asian Today, Mazumdar said the United States must do more to help India by sending oxygen, personal protective equipment, and vaccines and by condemning the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom critics have blamed for fueling the second wave by prematurely declaring victory in the pandemic and allowing large gatherings for political and religious events.

Mazumdar said the United States should support waiving intellectual property rules so COVID-19 vaccines can be manufactured generically worldwide and act quickly to share its stockpile of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine, which is being administered in India but hasn’t been cleared for distribution by American regulators.

Advertisement



“We have a huge stake in this,” she said.

Dr. Pranay Sinha, who grew up in India and now works at Boston Medical Center, said Indians living abroad should pressure Modi’s government to impose another national lockdown. His 89-year-old grandfather died of COVID-19 in November in India, two months after the country’s first coronavirus wave peaked. Cases in India began increasing again in mid-February after the government loosened pandemic restrictions.

The situation bears the hallmarks of the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic in India, which claimed more lives than its first surge, Sinha said.

“They celebrated prematurely,” he said. “We essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. None of this was necessary and now we are in worst situation possible and we are reliving history.”

Sewa International, a humanitarian organization with a chapter in Boston, has launched an online portal that provides real-time information from India about available hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medicine. As of Sunday, the nonprofit had raised more than $7 million to purchase oxygen concentrators for coronavirus patients in India, according to its website.

Ashwani Garg, a Shrewsbury resident and vice president of administration for Sewa International, said donors have been generous.

“The overwhelming support that we are getting from the community is humbling and inspiring,” said Garg, who has siblings in India.

Geena Virmani, a Shrewsbury resident who volunteers for Sewa International, said COVID-19 claimed the life of her sister-in-law’s husband in India on April 25 and her sister-in-law is sick with the virus.

The couple’s son, who works for Facebook, turned to his contacts to get hospital beds for his parents, she said.

“It’s everywhere. It’s every family. I get depressed by the hour,” Virmani said.

Shirley Leung of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.