Kiran Bandi, president of the India Association of Minnesota, at his Plymouth home. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Since a large wave of COVID-19 infections hit India last month, Kiran Bandi has been constantly checking in on his family overseas. 

Bandi, who left India in 1994, and moved to Minnesota in 2006, is originally from Hyderabad, a large industrial and tech city in the southern part of the country. Much of his family, including his father and several cousins, lives there. As of last week, one of these cousins was in the hospital and on supplemental oxygen after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Procuring the oxygen presented “a bit of a challenge” for his family, Bandi said. So did accessing Remdesivir, an antiviral drug sometimes used to treat bad COVID-19 infections, which doctors prescribed for his cousin’s treatment. But all things considered, Bandi’s family appeared to be pushing through the crisis. 

As president of the India Association of Minnesota (IAM), Bandi is plugged into a network of Indian Americans in Minnesota with connections to the subcontinent. Bandi heard much worse stories than his own from two friends here in Minnesota. On the same day last week, one lost her mother and while another lost her father. 

“It’s very difficult when you hear about your family, your friends who are stuck with it,” Bandi said. “It gets a little bit challenging to work, when you’re thousands of miles away. I don’t really know how we can help from here, other than what we’re doing right now.” 

The India Association of Minnesota is holding an online fundraiser to purchase oxygen concentrators—which provide supplemental oxygen to patients having trouble breathing—for hospitals and health care clinics across India.

In April, COVID-19 infections skyrocketed in India. At its worst, confirmed new cases averaged close to 400,000 a day, pushing the country’s health system to the brink of collapse. Pictures of makeshift cremations and horror stories about hospitals running out of supplemental oxygen filled news stories for the past month. As of press time, new case averages in the country are still high, at roughly 328,000 per day, though starting to recede. 

Minnesota is home to a sizable Indian American population: some 50,000 people in total. Many, like Bandi, are hearing stories from relatives and friends on the ground living through the crisis. And, like Bandi, they’re stuck thousands of miles away. 

So they’re doing what they can, and raising money locally to help the effort. The India Association of Minnesota is far from the only organization raising money to help during the crisis in India. Local nonprofits like Vidya Gyan, Marathi Association of Minnesota, the Chance Foundation, and BAPS Charities are all holding online fundraisers as well. 

Vijendra Agarwal, co-founder of Inver Grove Heights-based Vidya Gyan, which helps youth in rural India, said his organization set a target to raise $50,000. Vidya Gyan has already sent $25,000 to India’s PM CARES fund, which the country established last year to help with relief efforts, Agarwal said. The organization also purchased 14 oxygen concentrators from a dealer in Poland, which are currently shipping to India.

Agarwal, 72, is originally from a small village called Kota, near Saharanpur, in northern India. Two of his brothers live there. He said that his home village saw its second confirmed COVID-19 death earlier this week. 

“To me, the village is like a family, one large family—you know everybody,” Agarwal said. “So when you have that, everybody in the village is affected.” 

Bandi did not disclose numbers for how much money the IAM fundraiser has raised so far, explaining that the fundraiser is still in the early stages. All proceeds will go to Sehgal Foundation, a nongovernmental organization with U.S. offices in Iowa that works on rural development in India. Sehgal has a team on the ground in nine states in India, Bandi said. 

Traditional mantras and classical dance at fundraisers 

On May 2, the Maple Grove–based Hindu Society of Minnesota, home to one of the largest Hindu temples in the U.S., live streamed a prayer for India. During that prayer, local Hindu priests spoke a millenia-old mantra to wish good health for India and its future, said Pooja Bastodkar, president of the Hindu Society. At the same time, the Hindu Society asked for donations. Organizers initially set a goal of $2,000 to $3,000, but ended up raising $10,000.

“We had an amazing, generous, helpful community,” Bastodkar said. 

The Hindu Society gave all of the money to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), a nationwide professional organization. The physician’s group used the money to buy 20 oxygen concentrators, and donated each to hospitals and health care providers in India. 

The Hindu Society plans to hold another fundraiser next month, featuring a classical cultural dance on stage at the 43,000 square-foot temple. That performance is planned for Saturday, June 13, and money collected will go toward the same cause. 

Bastodkar said she is lucky in that none of her friends or extended family members in India have been affected by the recent COVID-19 surge. But she’s connected with friends who have lost their parents, neighbors, and childhood teachers over the last month. One of her friends just lost his father. For many people, it’s too soon to speak about this publicly, she said.

“The hardest part is not being able to go to India during this time,” Bastodkar said. “People have lost close ones very quickly and suddenly.” 

If you would like to help out, IAM’s website lists several local fundraising events seeking donations.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...