Docs Mobilize Help For Indian Colleagues Overwhelmed With COVID-19 Surge

Donavyn Coffey

May 05, 2021

Clinicians from across the world are banding together to mobilize help for their colleagues in India, where more than 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported daily for the past 2 weeks. Some are working hotlines and disseminating critical public health information; others are crowdfunding for equipment, training young doctors, or supporting vaccine registration. 

In the last 2 weeks, an average of 130 people have died of COVID-19 each hour in India, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard. Hospitals are overwhelmed, oxygen is scarce, and healthcare workers are enduring extreme conditions.

Blame for the surge has been attributed to several factors, including lack of vaccines, the emergence of new viral variants, and the Indian government's poor planning and lifting of social distancing policies too soon. 

Whatever the cause, global health experts say quelling the outbreak in India is a matter of global importance. If we don't subdue it, "we risk a forever pandemic with long-term cycles of lockdowns, economic damage, and constant fear," Madhukar Pai, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece.

For most doctors, helping is about much more than epidemiology. "Many of us have family and friends there and it's personal — it's absolutely personal," said Gita Sinha, MD, MPH, an infectious disease specialist and CEO of Almora Health Strategies in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is volunteering with the recently formed group India COVID SOS

Some healthcare workers are leveraging their networks and social media platforms to ask for donations to provide vital medical equipment. A group of UK physicians, first reported on by The Guardian , is raising funds to purchase and ship oxygen concentrators to India, and the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin has launched a similar effort. The Bay Area branch of India COVID SOS is collecting donated cPAP/BiPAP machines, which can be converted to respirators, to send.

Other doctors and organizations are recruiting volunteers to staff telehealth rotations. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) has established a telehealth project that will allow physicians in the UK to do virtual ward rounds, read and report on imaging scans and pathology tests, and conduct telehealth visits with patients in their homes to relieve some of the pressure on their Indian colleagues.

In the US, Priya Jaisinghani, MD, an endocrinology fellow at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, is working with 25 other volunteers from various time zones to staff a crisis hotline. For Jaisinghani, the crisis became very real when dozens of people she knew across New Delhi and Bombay contracted COVID-19 and began calling her because they couldn't access their doctors or get necessities like medication and oxygen. After helping her family, she connected with some others in India and they began collaborating to establish the hotline and help more people. 

"Every call you can imagine is coming through here," Jaisinghani said. People are seeking medical care advice, resources, financial aid, mental health services, and services for children whose parents are hospitalized. "Healthcare doesn't have one lane," Jaisinghani said. 

Information Gap

Besides medical equipment and personnel, another major need is reliable information. McGill's Pai saw the hospitals in India filling up from afar and wanted to get information to his family and friends about how to manage COVID-19 at home. He asked Krutika Kuppalli, MD, an infectious disease specialist who works in pandemic preparedness at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, for help. They created and posted a simple infographic about home care for people with COVID-19, and it went viral on social media. 

The infographic is now available in more than 20 languages, and several state and local governments have asked to make it an official resource. "It shocked us that this was such an unmet need," Kuppalli said. "This is all so much bigger than anything I planned."  

Kuppalli's and Pai's efforts, joined with a few other colleagues, grew into India COVID SOS, which has expanded to include researchers, engineers, clinicians, and policymakers leading different support efforts. Sinha, in Milwaukee, is helping with the work to provide essential public health messaging about how COVID is transmitted and the benefits of proper masking, good ventilation, and avoiding crowds. 

Sinha and her co-volunteers are also teaching young Indian doctors in training, who are stepping up to help care for patients, the latest clinical evidence and lessons learned from battling COVID in the US. Equipping the young doctors to triage patients effectively is a major focus, to better allocate critical care and resources to patients who need it. Also important: helping these healthcare workers care for themselves. They have to be able to keep this up, Sinha said, because India is facing more than just a 2-week crisis.  

The Leaders on the Front Lines 

There's been an overwhelming response from healthcare workers around the world who want to help. But it's critical to remember that the leaders of this movement are the folks on the ground, Sinha said. The international community is coming together to offer support, but it's the clinicians in India who define their needs and implement solutions. "They raise the questions. They raise the concerns. We [at the India COVID SOS] know what we are doing based on their reports," Sinha said. 

"Without them voicing that concern we can't address it. That's why it's important to listen. The world needs to listen right now," Jaisinghani said. "If we can't respond to one nation, there's no way the world is getting out of this pandemic. It's literally all for one and one for all."  

Donavyn Coffey is a freelance journalist who covers health and the environment from her home in the Bluegrass. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Insider, and SELF.

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