Doctors around the world are coming together to mobilize help for their colleagues in India, where more than 300,000 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported daily over the past two weeks. Some work online and disseminate critical public health information; others are team funding, training of young doctors or support for vaccine registration.
In the last two weeks, an average of 130 people have died of COVID-19 every hour in India, according to data from the COVID-19 control panel from Johns Hopkins University. Hospitals are overflowing, oxygen is scarce and health workers suffer from extreme conditions.
The blame for the increase has been attributed to several factors, such as the lack of vaccines, the emergence of new viral variants and of the Indian government poor planning and lifting of social distancing policies too soon.
Whatever the cause, global health experts say stifling the outbreak in India is a matter of global importance. If we don’t submit, “we risk a pandemic forever with long-term cycles of blockages, economic damage, and constant fear,” writes Madhukar Pai, MD, an epidemiologist at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, in Washington Post opinion article.
For most doctors, helping is 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 volunteers with the newly formed group India COVID SOS.
Some health workers are leveraging their social media networks and platforms to solicit donations to provide vital medical equipment. A group of Doctors of the United Kingdom, first reported by The guardian , raises funds to buy and ship oxygen concentrators to India and India American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin has initiated a similar effort. The branch in the bay area of India COVID SOS is collecting donated cPAP / BiPAP machines that can be turned into respirators to send.
Other doctors and organizations are recruiting volunteers to do telehealth rotations of staff. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) has established a telesalut project that will allow doctors in the UK to do virtual room rounds, read and report in imaging scans and pathology tests, and conduct telehealth visits with patients at home to relieve some of the pressure on their Indian colleagues.
In the United States, Priya Jaisinghani, MD, an endocrinology fellow at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, works with 25 more people volunteers from various time zones to the staff of a crisis telephone line. For Jaisinghani, the crisis became very real when dozens of people she knew in New Delhi and Mumbai hired COVID-19 and started calling her because they could not access her doctors or get necessities like medicine and oxygen. After helping his family, he connected with other people in India and they started collaborating to establish the hotline and help more people.
“Every call you can imagine comes here,” Jaisinghani said. People seek medical advice, resources, financial aid, mental health services and services for children with hospitalized parents. “Health care does not have a lane,” Jaisinghani said.
In addition to medical and personal equipment, another important need is reliable information. McGill’s father watched as hospitals in India were filling up from afar and wanted to get information from his family and friends on how to manage COVID-19 at home. He enlisted the help of Krutika Kuppali, MD, an infectious disease specialist working in preparation for a pandemic at South Carolina Medical University in Charleston. They created and posted a simple infographic about home care for people with COVID-19 and it went viral on social media.
Infographics are now available in more than 20 languages and several state and local governments have requested that it be an official resource. “We were surprised that this was such an unmet need,” Kuppali said. “All of this is much bigger than I had anticipated.”
Kuppali and Pai’s efforts, coupled with a few more colleagues, became India’s COVID SOS, which has expanded to include researchers, engineers, clinicians and policy makers leading different support efforts. Sinha, in Milwaukee, is helping with the task of providing essential public health messages about how COVID is transmitted and the benefits of proper masking, good ventilation, and avoiding crowds.
Sinha and his co-volunteers are also teaching young Indian doctors in training intensify to help care for patients, the latest clinical trials and lessons learned from the fight against COVID in the US. Equipping young doctors to choose patients effectively is one of the main focuses, to better allocate critical care and resources to patients who need it. It is also important: to help these health workers take care of themselves. They need to be able to keep it that way, Sinha said, because India is facing more than a two-week crisis.
There has been an overwhelming response of health workers to everyone who wants to help. But it is crucial to remember that the leaders of this movement are the people on the ground, Sinha said. The international community comes together to provide support, but it is India’s clinicians who define their needs and implement solutions. “They ask the questions. They raise the concerns. We [at the India COVID SOS] know what we are doing according to their reports, ”Sinha said.
“Without them expressing 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 a nation, there’s no way the world can get 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 at Bluegrass. His work has appeared in Popular Science, Insider and SELF.