[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: There is no good way to start this show. There’s a catastrophe happening right now in India.
News Clip: India has set a global daily infection record for the third straight day, more than 346,000 new cases, and more than 2,600 deaths.
News Clip: The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking.
News Clip: Crematoriums are burning so many bodies that in hard-hit Delhi, authorities are getting requests to start cutting down trees in city parks for kindling.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What you just heard isn’t the same thing as the third wave Canada is experiencing, however bad that may be in some parts of the country. What’s happening in India is the worst-case scenario. The country has been begging the world for help, only now is aid finally starting to flow. It’s going to get worse there before it gets better.
And here in Canada, [00:01:00] where racialized Canadians are bearing the brunt of our own third wave, it’s South Asian-Canadians who find themselves living through two pandemics at once. They’re trying desperately to keep themselves and their families safe here, and they’re praying for their extended families and loved ones in India. Trying to stay in touch and exhaling in relief when someone picks up the phone and says, yes, we’re okay.
This pandemic has shone light on the inequalities in our neighbourhoods and our cities in countries like Canada, and now on the global community. As our fellow Canadians suffer through dual disasters, what is our country, and the world at large, doing to help India? What can Canadians do to help our South Asian neighbours? And the biggest question, if the world can’t band together to stop disasters like what’s happening in India right now, what does that say for our ability to ever really [00:02:00] end this pandemic?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Sabina Vohra-Miller is a clinical pharmacologist. We often talk to her about vaccines on this program. She is also a South Asian-Canadian and the co-founder of the South Asian Health Network. Hey Sabina.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Hi there.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m just going to start, uh, with, you know, I guess what prompted your, uh, piece in the Toronto Star. As someone working on this pandemic here, and as a South Asian-Canadian, how are you doing?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: I’ll be honest, it’s, it’s been really, really rough. Um, I think South Asians, like myself, are basically fighting two pandemics. We’re fighting, you know, what’s happening here in Canada, especially with the South Asian community, and at the same time, we’re also trying to fight what’s happening in India with our friends or family or [00:03:00] relatives. Um, so it, it has been a really, really difficult, really challenging time for us.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you tell me from what you’re hearing from friends and family, what is it like to be there right now?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yeah, it’s just, you know, you hear, you hear these stories that are just exceptionally devastating. It’s, the issue right now in India, and many of the metropolitan cities, is that hospitals have basically maxed out capacity. It, you know, I keep saying they’re on the brink of collapse, but they’re not, they’ve collapsed, fully 100%. They’ve collapsed. There is absolutely no capacity left at hospitals anymore.
Um, and they’re trying to make these makeshift, um, outdoor hospitals. But the issue is that even if you get a bed within a hospital, these hospitals actually don’t have enough, um, necessary medications. So all of your critical medications, things like dexamethazone, for instance, that is so ubiquitously found and, you know, generic, um, but even things like sedatives for [00:04:00] intubations, I mean, are running really, really low in stock.
But on top of that is actually the issue with oxygen supply. Many big, large hospitals in Delhi, where my family’s from, um, are basically hours away from running out of oxygen entirely. I, you know, it’s just, I remember watching one of these stories on social media, on Twitter, you know, the countdown, down to minutes. They were two hours away from running out of oxygen for all of the patients in the hospital until, um, they were able to get some rescue oxygen.
But, but, and then knowing all of this, knowing all this is going on, knowing that there are these mass cremation sites being built, um, you know, reports of families who have to keep dead bodies of their relatives at home, uh, for multiple days, just because crematoriums are completely full or they don’t have wood to actually burn these funeral pyres, you know like, so you know that this is happening.
We’re having calls with healthcare [00:05:00] providers, um, who are on the ground in India on a daily basis. And you’re hearing, we’re hearing all of this directly from them. And then at the same time, knowing that your entire family is in the midst of this. That is the part that is just so incredibly scary. My only family in Canada really is my brother, and my dad who’s been stuck here because of the pandemic. He came here for, to visit last year, um, and has been here ever since because, you know, um, because of the pandemic, I’m not going to put him on a flight back anytime soon.
Um, but other than that, my entire family is in India. My entire family’s in Delhi. So knowing that this is happening right outside and I’m over here trying to help them, trying to advise them, trying to keep them safe. It’s just so, so hard. And then on top of that, you know, my dad spends basically the entire day speaking, uh, to friends and relatives and family back home. And, you know, every, every time he’s on a [00:06:00] call, you know, he’s basically, you know, telling family that, “Hey, hang on, I’m going to ask Sabina what you, what you should be doing right now.”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: So, I’m even advising them sitting from here, what they should do. Like I’ll give you an, you know, an example. Um, my dad’s closest friend, he’s basically, you know, my uncle because he’s, he’s my dad’s best friend and I’ve known him my entire life. You know, in India, everyone lives in these massive multi-gen housing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: So my dad’s friend lives in the, in the, on the, on the first floor and his brother lives upstairs. Um, and they have their mom who basically goes up and down between the two floors. And then these two families have kids and the kids now have grandkids. So there’s four generations, four generations that are living under one, you know, basically under one roof in one building.
Um, and they’re all commingling, and one of the kids came home with COVID. So now there’s potentially 50 people who have been exposed [00:07:00] from all age ranges, from nineties, all the way down to toddlers, right? Um, and so what do you do in the situation when you know that there is absolutely no space in a hospital left for them. If anyone gets sick, what do you do?
It’s so distressing because you’re watching all of this happen and you’re so far away. There’s very little you can do.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I mean, this is probably a question that demands a complex answer, but for, you know, people like myself who haven’t been following, you know, the slow and steady rise of cases there until, um, India started making headlines as a catastrophe. Uh, how did it get so bad? What could have been done? Like, do we know what went wrong?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yeah. You know, I’ll tell you where it, where it all sort of, kind of started was earlier this year, um, India basically saw this really sharp decline in cases. Um, you know, around the January timeframe, they had the lowest case that they’ve had, uh, through what the [00:08:00] pandemic. This led to this sense of complacency. Um, and you know, with some experts who basically claimed preemptively, that, that India had reached herd immunity, that there were enough infections that occurred that now people didn’t need to worry about COVID, and COVID was a thing of the past.
Um, and so what ended up happening is that all public health measures that were in place basically we’re opened up, entirely opened up, and life went back to pre-pandemic times. So, you know, I’m talking about these large scale weddings. I mean, my, my family, my dad’s brother went to a wedding last month and. I mean, Indian weddings are massive. There are thousands of people at these events. They’re not small events. It’s not like immediate family, 10 members. No. There are thousands of people at these events.
Um, you know, religious festivals that occurred, um, political rallies. I mean, this is a very, you know, a time for. Uh, reelections and political [00:09:00] rallies have been going on with, you know, tens of thousands of people. Um, and even Kumbh Mela, which usually occurs, you know, every 13 years, um, basically the largest gathering in the world, it sees upwards of 30 million people a day, a day.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: That went according to plan. And now we’re seeing all of these stories coming out, basically from, you know, those who attended Kumbh, the bathing ceremony. Like everyone coming back from these, there, everyone’s positive. Every single person coming is back as positive.
And then, you know, of course things with like the new variants didn’t help the situation. So already there is the B.1.1.7, the variant first found in UK that has been spreading in India. But on top of that, there’s this new variant, which is the B.126.96.36.199, um, which is also thought to be a lot more transmissible and possibly also able to evade pre-existing immunity.
Um, and the, the issue is that in India, the cases that we’re talking about, I [00:10:00] mean, we heard 350,000 cases the other day, but this is far un- underrepresented in what the actual true case load is. Like people think it’s actually in fact, a factor of 10. So we’re talking about 3 million cases a day and there’s actually no hospital system that can take that capacity in.
But the issue also is that India has one of the lowest per capita testing capacity. So they’re only conducting 0.4 tests per 10,000 people. And as an example in Canada, we are basically 10 times that here. And what ended up happening with this sense of herd immunity, they were publications written talking about how, you know, India may not need to vaccinate at that faster pace. India was also trying to be very selfless with their vaccines. They were one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines. They’ve basically exported most of the vaccines, or donated. They’ve actually donated, um, millions of vaccines to neighbouring South Asian countries.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I was going to ask about that. How does that happen? Um, [00:11:00] and, and I guess they’ve stopped some of that now, but you know, how does that happen in a population that is fairly at risk? I mean, there’s a billion people in India.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yeah. So I think it really has to do with the fact that they thought they were, they had herd immunity. They thought that they were immune and they thought that they should be prioritizing others who are not immune.
And, and that, I mean, obviously this is just, you know, what, um, what my speculation is. I really don’t understand what the, what the motivation behind this is because, you know, in my opinion, it’s all, you know, whether you, you have herd immunity, whether you’ve had COVID in the past. You get vaccinated because that’s how you have robust immune responses.
My speculation here is that they probably thought that they, they, you know, that being selfless about it was going to help because I mean, vaccine equity is such an important thing. We’re not okay until we’re all okay, right? Um, and so they, they, they ended up exporting and donating most of it. So less than 10% of the actual Indian [00:12:00] population has received one dose of the vaccine. And in fact, it’s even lower. It’s like it’s 1% for those who’ve received both doses of the vaccine. So only 1% of the Indian population is fully vaccinated at this point.
All of these factors have sort of compounded through the times and at any one of these points, you know, I think that, um, public health measures should have been undertaken. It’s not, you know, a month ago India had 30 to 40,000 cases. Today, they have 10 times that. Anytime between this one month, if public health measures were taken, we likely, they likely wouldn’t have been in this situation.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What is the community doing, both to keep itself safe and, you know, to organize aid from, from half a world away? It’s not just like, I guess, with a natural disaster where you can just send in the Red Cross.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: No, that’s exactly it. Um, and so you feel like your heart’s been completely torn into two over here. Um, I can’t help, [00:13:00] but see the parallels that is occurring with our racialized communities here. Um, you know, I live in Peel, I think I’ve mentioned that before. And I live basically in the biggest hotspot for all of Canada, and predominantly it’s like 60% of COVID infections in Peel are in the South Asian community. We make up less than 30% of the population here.
We’ve seen that not just South Asians have been disproportionally impacted by COVID here in Canada, but the reason has been because the pandemic response has been so deeply inequitable, you know, from- whether it comes, you know, from support and protections, to paid sick leave to testing. And obviously now, access to vaccines that is deeply inaccessible and inequitable.
Um, and you know, and we’re also seeing to be honest, now, this further stigmatization of South Asians. Um, I can’t even tell you how many people have, like, said to me, “Well, then, you know, your people shouldn’t be allowed over here,” or “Well, you know, if you’re going to [00:14:00] be talking about the, you know, what’s happening in India, maybe you should just go back to India.”
Um, and these comments are really hurtful and they’re painful because I love Canada. I love being here. I love my country. Um, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean that I cannot feel for what is happening to family members who are, you know, it, as I wrote my op-ed, 11,627 kilometers away from me, I can do both. I can be both.
And at the same time, you know, what we’re trying to do right now is, um, organized to try and help as well. First of all, I think a lot of the raw materials that are, that we’re looking for, that they’re looking for an India, um, things like oxygen, pulse oximeters, all of that. They’re being crowdsourced right now. Um, I can’t tell you the number of friends that I have and I know, are basically posting on Facebook saying, does anyone have any leads for oxygen in, you know, X city in India? [00:15:00] My relative needs it.
And I’m like-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Thank goodness for technology, but also heartbreaking that we actually have to search for lifesaving, you know, um, medicines online, on Facebook, on social media.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah. I’ve seen some of those posts on Twitter and, um, it’s just, it, it’s impossible to imagine yourself being in the position of having to tweet something and hope somebody can answer it to save, to save a loved one.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Exactly that, and it’s, it’s hard. Um, so what we’re trying to do now is put together a list of, you know, both organizations who are in Canada or fundraising, um, to send relief, but also sending, uh, things like oxygen concentrators, because it’s not easy to send oxygen tanks, right, ’cause they’re highly flammable. Um, so you can only send it in a certain format, so like oxygen concentrators.
And the other thing that India needs is the [00:16:00] cryogenic tanks, which are, you know, also, um, really hard to find and get and, and send. So there are organizations that are working towards that, and I’ve also been told that the Canadian Red Cross or the, uh, will be, um, will be starting a fundraising campaign to help as well. But, you know, this is a humanitarian crisis and it requires, um, a similar response.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Is India getting help from world governments? I know that, um, obviously resources for the stuff are in short supply in many countries right now, in particular Canada, are we doing anything officially?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: I’ve heard, I’ve heard that the Canadian government is in talks to actually help with resources. So in terms of oxygen and other materials to set up, um, for, for hospitals. Um, so I believe that we are in fact, um, trying to do what we can over here. But you know, what we really need, we need to do, um, and I was, uh, first of all, I was really happy to see that, that the US with the Biden administration, you know, over the weekend, first [00:17:00] of all, they lifted the ban of raw materials to make vaccines.
That was so incredibly important. And they worked, moved really quickly to, to, um, you know, uh, uplift this ban. And now yesterday they said that they were essentially going to be mobilizing their AstraZeneca that is made in the US and sending that over as well. So I’m happy to see how quickly they moved on this.
What, what Canada needs to do right now, you know, in addition to sending funds and resources, um, first of all, we need to allow India to divert all of the AstraZeneca that is going to be manufactured by the Serum Institute. We need to be allowing them to divert it back to the Indian population we cannot have our premier, you know, calling the Indian high commissioner, asking for extra AstraZeneca doses at a point when India needs to save it for their population.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Is that what happened?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yeah, that, that happened here in Ontario, this was last week during the crisis when, um, our premier basically [00:18:00] said this, so.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yes, and I can tell you that I thought, you know, when I read that I was, I was shocked. I actually was speechless when I saw that. And the other thing we need to be doing is we need to get Canada, we need to push Canada and other countries to waive vaccine patents, IP rights, towards vaccines. Vaccine equity is so incredibly important. You know, you, you can’t, you, you can’t, we can’t get to a point of no COVID, if everyone is not safe, it’s just simply not possible.
We’ve seen that, you know, we live in a global society, like, viruses don’t have don’t follow these arbitrary borders that we, you know, that’d be put across. Um, and to get everyone, uh, equitable access to vaccines, we have to waive these IP patents. It’s so incredibly important to do that.
This ‘me first’ strategy is not just inequitable, but we [00:19:00] know that it’s not going to work. Um, and I think that we, we really just need to be looking at, um, at this in a more global scale and understanding that there’s a lot of the world that, um, you know, where your access to vaccines and your access to life is dependent on factors that you basically cannot control. If we’re not all in this together, we’re not going to all be okay.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I want you to try to answer this question, uh, for me from the, the point of view, I guess, of a extremely self-interested, um, Canadian who has no ties to other nations. You said, you know, we’re not okay until we’re all okay. Why is it in that person’s best interest, who’s never going to India, doesn’t have family there, et cetera, et cetera, to, for Canada to share it’s AstraZeneca, vaccines, raw materials, et cetera, et cetera. How does that work?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Yeah, and I think we’ve seen throughout the pandemic that there is simply no way for us [00:20:00] to not be impacted by what’s happening in another country. It’s bound to happen here. You know, when COVID was first discovered, um, we tried to play this similar, shutting borders via a whack-a-mole strategy where we’re, where we said, “Okay, well, we’re going to stop flights from China. Okay, well, we’re going to stop flights from Iran.” It didn’t work. Did it work? We’re 15 months into a global pandemic. We’ve seen how this strategy simply does not work. So there’s no way for us to keep this outside our country.
The only way we can actually keep this, if we actually have this global, um, you know, effective global pandemic containment strategy that allows the entire world to basically work on containing, um, COVID, that’s the only way we can all be okay. Um, because you know, playing, playing border whack-a-mole is definitely not getting, going to get us there. We’ve seen that, how it hasn’t.
So, you know, you might be in Canada, you might think you are safe, but you have no idea if you’re going to work, you’re going to be [00:21:00] exposed to someone who just traveled back from, from another country. You don’t know if you’re, you know, taking public transit and sitting next to someone who coughs, who actually just returned back from somewhere else. You, you, you have no idea where you’re going to be exposed. So I think that the false sense of security that you’re, you know, 11,627 kilometers away, um, is, is just that- it’s a false sense of security.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’ve talked about what India needs, uh, and is, or isn’t getting from governments around the world. Um, what do South Asian-Canadians need from other Canadians, uh, in their community? How can we help?
Sabina Vohra-Miller: If, if people have the capacity to fundraise and send resources in terms of just core dollar amounts, that would be so incredibly helpful as well. Um, the other thing, what we would love to do is just raise awareness, um, you know, on what is going on, um, try to contact your MPs and your MPPs, um, to push [00:22:00] for international relief, international aid, and as well as making sure that there’s equitable vaccine access.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Sabina, thank you so much for this. I hope you’re okay. I hope your family and friends are okay.
Sabina Vohra-Miller: Thank you so much.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That was Sabina Vohra-Miller, that was The Big Story. For more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase @rci.rogers.com [click here!], and as always find us in your favourite podcast player. You can follow us, you can subscribe, you can rate, you can review, you can share with anyone you like. You can ask for us on your favourite voice assistant as well.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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