Moderators and panelists at the World Affairs Council and Global Atlanta's joint event on th COVID-19 Crisis in India.

CARE India has made a dent in combating the country’s current COVID-19 spike, opening oxygen-equipped makeshift hospitals to triage patients with less severe cases and reducing the load on main government facilities. 

But even if positive trends hold, with case numbers in megacities like Mumbai and Delhi flattening off after daily case totals surpassed 400,000 nationwide, funding needs for the Atlanta-based nonprofit’s India arm could be even more significant in the coming weeks as its outreach ramps up in rural areas and as the pandemic spreads southward.  

CARE India CEO Manoj Gopalakrishna said the second wave was a “bolt out of the blue” that caught government, industry and nonprofits all off guard in a country whose health care system has some strengths but overall was ill-equipped to handle such an acute surge.  

“We only have 90,000 critical care beds for a 1.4 billion population, so there is a huge systemic gap that we are trying to close at this point in time,” Mr. Gopalakrishna said during an interview with World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro Thursday.  

The Council worked with Global Atlanta to put on a joint briefing and virtual fundraiser for CARE India drawing attention to the crisis Thursday and asking the Atlanta community to help.  DONATE NOW >>

Watch the full program below: 

The first pillar of the CARE India response has been makeshift hospitals that help with “de-clogging the tertiary care system.” A 100-bed facility set up 10 days ago in Patna, the capital of Bihar, is already full, with a second set to open soon in the city in partnership with the government of a state that has a population of more than 100 million.  

CARE has also been working to strengthen the oxygen supply chain, transporting cylinders, helping set up oxygen plants and ensuring access to BiPAP machines, all while coordinating with other NGOs like the American India Foundation, which is also mounting a COVID-19 response, and United Way, which has been instrumental in moving critical supplies around the country.  

Delhi’s oxygen needs doubled within a week, Mr. Gopalakrishnan said, stressing the entire system. Oxygen produced 1,500 miles away has been moved by train to Delhi and other hotspots, and foreign shipments of oxygen concentrators and cryogenic tanks for transport have helped. But the more critical medium-term need is training of those who will deliver oxygen to the patients and ensure they’re routed correctly through the health system. 

K.M. Venkat Narayan, an epidemiologist and chaired professor of epidemiology and global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said that while the scale of the new outbreak is unprecedented, it wasn’t completely unanticipated.

Many expert voices had been warning of second wave, yet both government and citizens grew complacent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has weathered criticism for prematurely declaring COVID-19 contained in the country and moving ahead with political rallies and religious festivals that brought millions of people together without masks and distancing. 

“All of this conveys a signal of normalcy when the country was not ready. That is a major thing we cannot forget, but more importantly, the window of time that was available to plan for a large second wave was not utilized,” said Dr. Narayan. “It’s really an amplified version of the chaos and confusion that we went through in 2020 (in the U.S.). If there is a lesson, it’s that we are all in this together.”  

Dr. Narayan stressed that the pandemic is far from over globally and that helping India both tackle the current wave and inoculate its population in the coming months is not only the right thing to do for India, but also for the global community.  

“The pandemic is not behind us. No country currently should feel safe — we need to take that cautionary message much more seriously,” he said. “A disaster in India could be an economic and security disaster for the world.”  

Transparent, dependable data, shared globally and left in the hands of experts without undue interference from politicians, will be key to containing variants and formulating winning public-health strategies and consistent messaging that will change behaviors, Dr. Narayan said.  

On a day the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Americans who have been fully vaccinated may resume indoor activities without masks or social distancing, the road ahead for India seemed particularly challenging.  

Only 3 percent of Indians have yet been fully vaccinated, with somewhere between 15-20 percent having received one dose. India, which exported tens of millions of doses early on and has the world’s largest vaccine manufacture in the Serum Institute of India, now needs to more than triple its 3 million-a-day pace of inoculations if it hopes to see a substantial segment immunized by the end of 2021.   

Mr. Gopalakrishna said that CARE will be supporting this “humongous” logistical effort around the country, noting that India already has ample infrastructure in place for vaccinations that don’t require storage at sub-zero temperatures.  

“India needs around 250-270 million doses per month for covering substantive populations by year end and currently India makes only 80-90 million doses per month. This gap needs to be bridged by scaling up capacity of current manufacturers and importing vaccines from other countries,” he said, adding that the Indian government has provisioned about $5 billion to cover the cost of the vaccine rollout.

In the meantime, CARE India will need help setting up more temporary hospitals, working on community health training and assisting with infrastructure challenges around the country, while using the clarity of the moment to eye deeper structural needs.  

“This is a realistic time to make an assessment on how you really strengthen the health system, because I think the fault lines are very visible at this point in time,” Mr. Gopalakrishna said. 

Asked about reforms to the nonprofit sector that have left many nonprofits unable to receive foreign funds, Mr. Gopalakrishna said CARE India is among the 16 percent of nonprofits that have opened bank accounts at state banks to retain their ability to receive foreign funds.  

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...