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The Little Engine That Can: A Hindu Faith-based Organization in the US Responds to the COVID Surge in India

Author: Ramesh Rao
Publication: Rameshrao-89399.medium.com
Date: May 23, 2021
URL:   https://rameshrao-89399.medium.com/the-little-engine-that-can-a-hindu-faith-based-organization-in-the-us-responds-to-the-covid-surge-433e43232221

They advise us to not let a crisis go to waste just as they point out that it is in crises that leaders emerge, that it is in demanding times that organizations, otherwise off the media radar, can rise to the challenge and prove their real worth. So it is that when the whole world and very much the Indian government and Indian people seem to have been caught with their masks down, and the second wave swamped the country that a Hindu faith-based organization in the US, Sewa International, found itself leading the charge to buy, pack, and ship much needed medical equipment like oxygen concentrators and ventilators from the US to India. Within two weeks of starting their Facebook fundraising campaign, with a modest goal of raising $500,000 the team leading the charge found itself in a whirlwind of activity, with money pouring in, and urgent demands for medical equipment singing the ears and burning the eyes of volunteers responding to phone calls and monitoring the Facebook page and Whatsapp message boards. Within two weeks Sewa International had raised almost $15 million and had spent $6 million of it. Their Facebook campaign goals quickly changed from $500,000 on April 25 when they started the campaign to $1 million to $5 million and then to $10 million. At present that social media campaign has raised nearly $8 million from more than 106,000 people.

In 2019 the organization had raised about $7.6 million, and their 2020 figures are yet to be released but most probably it would not be much more than that. However, when the pandemic swept the world, and the US was one of the worst affected countries, Sewa International was able to motivate its volunteers and enthuse the leadership to really think bigger than they had over the 15 years of their existence. Harnessing the collective abilities and interest of over 500 dharmic organizations in the US, Sewa International was able to deliver something like $50 million worth of goods and services to underserved communities across the US.

The organization, started in India in 1989, but which had been registered in the US only in 2004 as a Hindu faith-based organization, had grown under the steady leadership of Prof. Sree Sreenath, a professor in the Electrical, Computer & Systems Engineering Department at Case Western Reserve University who helmed the organization from 2009 to 2020. Bringing his academic experience and his interest in global issues, including sustainable development to steer the organization, he had guided this volunteer-run little organization to a level of confidence in its own ability to rise to the occasion when disasters struck.

So, as the second wave of COVID-19 began to overwhelm India, the leadership realized they had to act quickly. With their marketing director and their communications director both stuck in India, others in the large city chapters like Atlanta, Houston, the Bay Area and New Jersey began to put together a plan. Starting with a Facebook campaign called “Help India Defeat COVID-19” on April 23 to raise awareness here in the US Sewa volunteers began raising funds to launch the disaster relief work in India. Over the past four weeks, Sewa has raised over $7.6 million from more than 106,000 donors and bought 7,482 oxygen concentrators and shipped most of them as part of a multi-pronged effort to help India. Another $5 million has been raised through their website campaign, and some big donors, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and multinational corporations, businesses have been generous in their support to Sewa International.

Sewa has purchased more than 10,000 oxygen-concentrators and airlifted more than 9,500 of them to India. Multiple shipments of concentrators from Atlanta to Delhi were flown by UPS free of charge. Air India has been distributing the consignment to seven cities in India. From there the medical equipment are being transported by road to over 21 cities across India to 118 Covid Care Centers, and 287 Isolation Centers.

With lockdowns impacting livelihood of the poor, especially in rural and tribal areas, Sewa is also providing food and medicines to families, orphanages, and senior citizen centers across the country. Working with its partners in India, Sewa International has distributed more than 10,000 medicine kits, and more than 5,000 home isolation kits, with over 14,000 volunteers from 185 partner organizations engaged in this distribution efforts on the ground.
Sewa International, USA, works with its partner Sewa International, India, as well as other Sewa International organizations around the world. One of the big challenges initially was to figure out where and to whom the much-needed equipment had to be sent in India, and where was the most urgent need. So, a Digital Helpdesk was set up to provide critical information on ambulance services, hospital bed availability, and blood and medicinal supplies to people. There are over 200 volunteers managing this helpdesk. They have also launched a website — www.covidsewa.com — offering an up-to-date dashboard for self-help. As Indian hospitals and care agencies struggle to meet this dire medical emergency, Sewa volunteers have been working across the country, in small towns and big cities to offer information about hospital bed availability, medical equipment distribution, vaccinations, and testing for COVID-19. The helpdesk is also getting help by many US volunteers who are connecting Indians in the US seeking help for their family members in India.

Sewa International has also partnered with eGlobalDoctors and the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) to provide daily free consultations to patients in India. As a part of this initiative, expert doctors from the US and the UK are offering relief to their Indian counterparts who are severely short staffed and in need of help.

Oxygen Generation Plants

In a new initiative, Sewa International now plans to install about 100 oxygen generation plants in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns and in rural and tribal areas. Sewa International will be funding the installation of 100 oxygen generation plants in hospitals across India to ease oxygen scarcity in the country. It has ordered 20-tonn Zeolites (molecular sieves that absorb nitrogen and produce oxygen as a product) from Honeywell to establish up to 30 plants immediately. As a part of these efforts, Sewa has placed orders for 15 oxygen generation plants to be set up in the next 8–12 weeks at a cost of about $1.8 million.

Sewa International has started a fundraising campaign to construct these oxygen plants. A donation of $61,000, $81,000 or $121,000 will help install one oxygen plant of a desired size in a place of the donor’s choice. The distribution of oxygen generation capability to different parts of the country is very important to bridge the urban-rural divide in India’s healthcare sector. Sewa has identified three vendors from India to supply machinery required to build these plants. The first fifteen plants will be a mix of 250 LPM and 500 LPM capacity and each can support about 20 to 40 ICU beds. Sewa International is working with forty to fifty hospitals across India to establish these plants, and the number of hospitals is expected to grow to more than one hundred depending on donor support.

The participating hospitals will have to invest about $10,000 to $15,000 and bear annual maintenance costs. However, each of these plants can generate enough oxygen that hospitals can not only satisfy their own needs but also supply to other hospitals and care agencies and earn about $20,000 to 25,000 a year. The plants, with good care and maintenance, have a life of twenty years. One 500 LPM plant can support a 200-bed hospital with 40 ICU beds or can produce 110 cylinders of oxygen a day. Including site preparation expenses and taxes, one such plant will cost about $121,000.

“Control Center”

Big charitable organizations and international agencies have hundreds if not thousands of paid staff who work in fancy glass and steel buildings under the direction of well-paid executives who jet their way around the world meeting with heads of states and governments and planning and strategizing work they then do not most often follow up. Think about the Gates Foundation or the Red Cross or the UNICEF, and you will get the picture. However, Sewa International, with less than five percent administrative and overhead costs, none of their executive leaders paid a dime, and the 43 chapters across the US run by volunteers, cannot bring the spit and polish to their marketing collateral nor can they show and tell the world where they work from because most of them work from their homes, and use the talents and skills learned elsewhere to their work of passion and commitment.

So it was, within a matter of days, in mid-April, when the news from India was basically one of an overwhelmed country that could not cope with the surge of a second wave of COVID-19. Sewa volunteers began to hear of a new variant of the virus, the B.1.617, which was deadlier, more virulent, and more easily transmitted. Overnight, they began to hear from their families or friends who were affected. Panic-stricken messages flooded social media, and there was little time to plan a careful, calibrated response. But they swung into action — no grand announcement to the media, no news conferences, no C suite meetings in corner offices in Houston or New York City or Atlanta, but through Whatsapp messages, phone calls, Zoom meetings and hopping into their cars to go meet with other volunteers to travel to a facility to negotiate the price for oxygen concentrators or to ask a generous donor for money.

Sewa International has a commendable record in aiding communities faced with disaster, and their indefatigable team leaders swung into action getting their Sewa International India partners on the line to begin listing and sending information about what was needed, where, when, how.
Realizing the gravity of the disaster, a “Control Center” was set up at GC Ingredients, Inc., the business that is owned by Sewa’s Atlanta Chapter President. With some tables, chairs, a large TV monitor for beaming Zoom calls in a quickly readied room, the team members began their work with their personal laptop computers.

The team’s task was multi-fold: (1) seeking information from Sewa’s Indian partners about the need of specific equipment; (2) locating businesses and industries that manufacture and sell them in the US; (3) ordering those equipment and transporting them to the GC Ingredients warehouse for storing; (4) working with cargo carriers like UPS and commercial airlines that were offering to airlift the equipment; (5) ensuring that all needed paperwork at the US end is correct and ready for airlifting the medical equipment and medicines; (5) validating that the equipment arrived with the necessary documents for Indian authorities to quickly release them for pickup from our partners; and (6) sharing that information with the communication and marketing teams here to coordinate the work of some eighteen teams with about 550 people. This keeps the “Control Room” busy and humming all day and all night long.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

Despite the usual set of anti-Hindu detractors and spoilsports, whose life-calling seems to be to spend all their waking time plotting the destruction of Hindu civilization, culture, organizations, and the nation Hindus revere as “matrubhoomi” and “punyabhoomi,” Hindu American organizations, including Sewa International, are quietly and diligently helping and serving the communities they live in. When volunteers from the Atlanta Chapter of Sewa International drive three hours to a church in Albany, Georgia, in their cars and vans, loaded with food, medicine, laptop computers, and personal protective equipment and give them away standing in the hot summer sun at a drive-through event, or when every weekend volunteers in the Bay Area Chapter unload three truck loads of food and distribute them in underserved areas, or when Houston Chapter volunteers spend evenings and weekends teaching and advising children in poor Latino and Black neighborhoods they are not doing it to win converts. They do not even tell the people they serve what religious faith they follow. They just do it. They do it because they are inspired the Hindu ideals of “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam” — the world is one family — and that “Nara seva” is “Narayana seva”. They also believe in dāna, “detached charity” or “philanthropy to the deserving”. Dāna, with damah (self-restraint) and daya (compassion) are the three major aspects of a virtuous life, as we Hindus know. The significance of dāna is acknowledged in all the Hindu sacred texts, and it is said that dāna leads to acquiring puṇya and destroying pāpa. It is said the Brahma ordained that since human beings are full of lōbha (greed) and tend to hoard they have to offer dāna as it constitutes a form of discipline to erase the effects of past misdeeds — prāyaschitta sādhana. It is also said that offering dāna is so significant that irrespective of how it is offered, the donor still acquires puṇya. Most of the Sewa volunteers tend to be middle-class, and they have their own daily challenges living and working in the US, their “karma bhoomi”. But they dutifully finish their day’s work, sit in front of their computers, and participate in Zoom meetings late into the night sharing information, strategizing how to raise money, tweaking the press releases they have drafted, or catching up with the updates from executive leaders on work to be planned and work to be done. Not one minute, ever, is spent on undermining the work, reputation, faith, belief, or conviction of others.

For a little engine to work, and carry a big load, it needs hundreds of volunteers willing to give much of their life to seva, selfless service.     

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