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Indian American Physicians Try To Help With India's COVID-19 Crisis From Afar

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

COVID infections continue to decline in the United States, but for weeks now, India has been in a coronavirus crisis that is almost difficult to fathom. People are dying in the streets. The wood for cremations is running out. The shortages of oxygen and vaccines are dire. Many Indian Americans are torn between watching the U.S. come back to life with more vaccines and fewer masks while millions suffer in the place that they or their families might have once called home. Dr. Suneela Harsoor is president of the Indian American Medical Association of Illinois, and her group is trying to help from what feels like a world away. She joins us from Chicago. Dr. Harsoor, thanks so much for being with us.

SUNEELA HARSOOR: Thanks for the kind introduction, Scott.

SIMON: Do you have family and friends in India?

HARSOOR: Yes. I have quite a few friends and relatives. And my mother and my dear sister are back home.

SIMON: Oh, my. What do they say?

HARSOOR: Well, we are lucky we have a physician in the family. So my mother, who is elderly, was lucky to get vaccinated. My sister, who's a little bit on the heavier side and has some lung infection, had to struggle and fight to get her share of a vaccine. But we have a lot of friends and family who are suffering. Every day, we hear some friend or some family succumbing to this wild virus.

SIMON: Yeah. May I ask, Dr. Harsoor, what is it like for you and other members of the Indian American Medical Association of Illinois to be helping people as you are, for example, on the South Side of Chicago, and yet, part of your mind and heart must also be concentrating on the suffering you know is going on in India?

HARSOOR: Sure. You're absolutely right. Last year, same time, we were going through something similar, but definitely at a lesser scale than what India is going through. And same time last year, we were trying to help out our American community but never thought India would be in a similar situation. I think there was this false sense of security because the first wave was so easy on India. Well, they did suffer a little, but not this hard.

SIMON: Yeah.

HARSOOR: Now it feels like we are living in two different worlds.

SIMON: So help us understand what some of you and other Indian American physicians in Illinois are doing - I guess consulting Zoom conferences. What are you trying to do to be helpful?

HARSOOR: So right in the beginning, we thought the biggest problem was material, the resources and funds. So we were frantically raising funds and trying to procure oxygen concentrators, ventilators and, of course, oxygen delivery equipment like BiPAP and CPAP machines. And we were able to send some across. But later on, now we have realized the health care workers are also in deep trouble. They're not able to take care of this volume of patients. So we, as physicians, now realize our main duty is to educate people. So we do counseling. And basically, we'll try to convert our medical lingo to patients in their own language, tell them, yes, it's a difficult disease, but you need to look at the positive side of it. All those who are positive may not die from this.

SIMON: You must be worried about friends and family.

HARSOOR: Oh, definitely. Definitely, yes. One is my family. Thankfully, they're doing OK - immediate family. But I have relatives and friends who are not doing too well. People shared stories of deaths and sickness and scrambling for beds. And sometimes, it feels if they had - were given a little bit of oxygen, they would have survived. If they had a ventilator for the day, they would have survived. So it is very painful.

SIMON: Dr. Suneela Harsoor is president of the Indian American Medical Association of Illinois. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

HARSOOR: Thanks, Scott. Appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.