Indian Americans Face A Pandemic Crisis Raging On Thousands Of Miles Away As Conditions Improve In Colorado

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Vignesh Ramachandran for CPR News
A volunteer for Sewa International checks the temperature of a man getting a COVID-19 vaccine during a May 15, 2021, vaccination event at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of the Rockies in Centennial.

For the 30,000 or so Indian Americans living in Colorado, the coronavirus pandemic presents an emotional whiplash right now.

About 43 percent of people in this state are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and hospitalizations continue to fall. Gov. Jared Polis has lifted the statewide mask mandate for vaccinated Coloradans. People are finding freedom they haven’t known for more than a year.

But the pandemic remains a dire emergency in India — the second-most populated country in the world. Densely packed cities, strained health infrastructure and a contagious variant have devastated the public. About 27 million people have been infected in India and more than 303,000 are dead from the virus, and experts say the numbers are likely undercounted.

As pandemic conditions improve in Colorado, Indian Americans here are fielding WhatsApp updates in the wee hours, coordinating hospital beds and oxygen tanks and mourning loved ones from thousands of miles away.

“Being an Indian American is really interesting at this point, just because in America, we’re having a surplus of vaccines. People are choosing to not get the vaccine,” said Sanjana Shenoy, a 23-year-old medical assistant who lives in Lafayette. “Then in India, we’re having such a big problem where people are dying to get vaccines. So it’s kind of tough being in this position, living here, but being an Indian at heart, knowing that people back home are suffering.”

'We hear about deaths every day'

Like many Indians in Colorado, Vijayalakshmi Bettadapura, of Highlands Ranch, has relatives in India who have been infected or hospitalized because of COVID-19. Her cousin’s husband recently passed away from the virus, which she says was shocking news for the family.

“This time it’s hit India, it is really bad — and when I say bad, it is hitting close to home because I have relatives falling sick, I’ve had friend’s relatives,” she said. “We hear about deaths every day. Somebody or the other dying.”

Sometimes, the efforts to help loved ones from afar pay off. Ranga Vinjamuri, who lives in Aurora, said he recently had to help his aunt in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh in southern India get a hospital bed after she became critically ill with the coronavirus.

“She did get the bed and she’s actually in a much better position after receiving the treatment and such,” Vinjamuri. “So we are hoping for a full recovery.”

“I think everybody’s pitching in right now,” said former state representative and Colorado Springs physician Janak Joshi. “Of course many of our community members are very worried because their family members, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins — they all are suffering right now.”

Some Indian Americans have organized fundraising campaigns on social media, helped coordinate hospital treatments and tried to rally oxygen tanks.

Vignesh Ramachandran for CPR News
Colorado chapter Sewa International volunteers Sanjana Shenoy, left, and Vijayalakshmi Bettadapura led efforts to organize the April and May weekend vaccination events at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of the Rockies in Centennial.

Volunteering to help Indian Coloradans and other community members get vaccinated.

Vinjamuri, Bettadapura, Shenoy and Joshi are also helping out in Colorado, because Indians in the U.S. haven’t escaped the pandemic at home, either. They’re all volunteers for the Colorado chapter of Sewa International, a Hindu faith-based nonprofit organization that works on disaster relief in the U.S. and abroad.

South Asian Americans in particular have faced unique risks with COVID-19, because of comorbidities like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. In the early days of the pandemic in New York City, for example, South Asians there had the second-highest rate of test positivity behind Hispanic people.

So these Coloradans of Indian descent have helped organize two vaccine clinics this spring at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of the Rockies in Centennial. They have helped more Indian Coloradans get vaccinated, as well as other local residents.

“We felt that this location would be good. People also trust places of faith,” Joshi said.

The clinics, which the Sewa volunteers set up with Polis’ office, have been open to anyone in the public. About 350 people got vaccinated in April and another 120 in May.

After struggling to secure a vaccine appointment through various hospital websites, Centennial couple Geethanjali and Vikas Garud got their vaccines at the temple.

“I’m glad that I’m getting vaccinated,” Geethanjali said. “This was super easy. And I like the energy here, the people are very helpful.”

During the May 15 and 16 weekend event, Sewa volunteers in yellow shirts led people through the process of signing up and getting their first or second shot.

“I’m doing just my bit here,” Bettadapura said. “Whatever I can do in my capacity to help people — I am not just saying the Indian community — whoever, to get them vaccinated.”

These experiences make it clear how global this disease is, and Bettadapura says the large-scale recovery from it is going to take efforts from around the world.

“People back home [in India] are also working really hard to fight the virus,” Bettadapura said. “But the only way we can do it is we have to come together. Forget which nation, what people — we are just one race, the human race. And we have to come together as a human race to fight this pandemic.”

Vignesh Ramachandran for CPR News
About 350 people got vaccinated in April and another 120 in May, during weekend COVID-19 vaccination events hosted at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of the Rockies in Centennial.