India’s COVID crisis is also being felt in Canada

How one Park Extension resident is living it half a world away

Lovepreet Kaur is watching the crisis in India from afar, hoping her family will stay safe. Photo: Matias Brunet-Kirk

For most people during the pandemic, physical proximity with family has taken a toll. But for others, that separation has been made even worse due to the sheer physical distance between them.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise uncontrollably and deaths mount at a staggering rate, India is now facing a daunting crisis.
Hospitals are turning away sick patients, oxygen supplies for ventilators are increasingly scarce and morgues and crematoriums are overflowing. The country is now recording new daily case averages at over 300,000 accompanied by nearly 4,000 daily deaths.

From afar
From an apartment in the south end of Park Extension, Lovepreet Kaur (photo above), is half a world away from her family. She is increasingly worried about their safety in India.
Like many Indo-Canadians and people of South Asian descent, Kaur has no choice but to watch from afar as her native country experiences mounting deaths and the wholesale collapse of its healthcare system.
Kaur’s entire family lives in a small agricultural village in the northern state of Punjab, on the border of Haryana. Her family are farmers and have little contact with outsiders, which reassures her slightly as to their risk of contracting the virus.
“We are scared, but we are living in a small village so we have a good environment over there,” said Kaur of her smaller hometown, adding that “in the big cities, there is a big problem.”
“They are safer in the village more than in the cities,” Kaur added.

Spreading to rural India
Although the surge in COVID cases has been most marked in the large cities, the spread is quickly making its way into the rural areas of India which are less equipped with health infrastructure and consequently much more vulnerable.
Dr. Mira Johri is a Professor in the Department of Health Management at the University of Montreal’s School of Public Health. She concentrates her research on the social and structural determinants of child health in developing nations and has worked extensively in the Indian healthcare system.
“The infrastructure is so poor that if in Delhi, people are not able to get the care that they need, I can’t imagine in a rural village,” deplored Johri. “It just breaks my heart,” she confided.

Combination of factors
Although it’s impossible to point to one particular reason for the surge, many experts have said that a combination of factors contributed to it.
“I would say that the government let down its guard and started permitting a lot of social interactions that it probably should not have permitted,” said Johri on the Modi government’s decision to allow a number of large religious festivals to go forward as well as family gatherings.
The crisis has also been compounded by the widespread lack of investment in the healthcare system and insufficient access to it, with many having to pay out of pocket. According to data by the World Bank, India spends about 3.5% of its GDP on healthcare, much lower than the global average of 9.8%.
“The government’s investment in the public system isn’t high enough,” said Johri, further underlining the importance of public healthcare in crises like this one. “It’s what guarantees equity.”

Need for vaccination
But with growth in more contagious and increasingly resistant variants, Johri said this is no longer just about India.
“I don’t want to make a big special plea for India, except to say that every country deserves to be empowered so that it can handle its crisis,” said Johri, adding that equitable access to vaccines across the globe would do just that.
Last week the Biden administration suggested a waiver on intellectual property protections at the World Trade Organization for COVID-19 vaccines, in order to ramp up production and distribution in developing countries like India.
“I do think that the waiver proposal at the WTO is extremely important to pass but it’s not a standalone solution,” said Johri, adding that it was the responsibility of countries like Canada to offer a basket of solutions.

Mira Johri is a Professor in the Department of Health Management at the University of Montreal’s School of Public Health. Photo: Mira Johri

Letter to Trudeau
Johri is not alone in her belief that other countries should be more proactive in helping countries like India. On Monday, 122 researchers, epidemiologists, doctors and advocates published an open letter in MacLean’s magazine demanding the Trudeau government show more “leadership on global vaccination efforts.”
Dr. Ananya Banerjee is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at McGill University and is one of the people who spearheaded the open letter initiative.
“I don’t blame India, I blame the global governance in terms of how the planning had taken place, in terms of who gets vaccinated versus not,” said Banerjee of developing countries receiving meagre access to vaccines.
“That will lead to more and more variants that we know are likely to be more dangerous and more transmissible,” she added.
That group of experts is asking the Trudeau government to follow the United States’ lead and support the waiver on intellectual property regarding vaccines. This would be in addition to a number of other diplomatic measures, such as “lifting any bans globally on the export of materials necessary to vaccine production,” read the letter.

The effects still felt at home
For Lovepreet Kaur, she would also like to see Canada do more to come to India’s aid. She acknowledges the many challenges India’s healthcare system faces and feels it would be better to contribute materially.
“If the money comes, it’s gonna be zero in the ground level,” said Kaur of how she believes the funds will be mismanaged. She feels that delivering more vaccines and giving better access to oxygen would be more helpful
In the meantime, she can only wait and hope her family stays safe. “I feel sometimes lonely here because I don’t have them,” confided Kaur, hoping her family could one day come to meet her in Canada.
“It’s been two years I haven’t seen my mother’s face,” said Kaur, “I pray to God that hopefully, everything is going to be good soon.”

Lovepreet Kaurs’ parents and family of in-laws in the Indian state of Punjab. Photo: Lovepreet Kaur