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Local Indian executives rally to send badly needed medical equipment to COVID-ravaged country

A family member comforted a patient breathing with the help of oxygen being provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent along the road in Ghaziabad, India.
A family member comforted a patient breathing with the help of oxygen being provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent along the road in Ghaziabad, India.TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

As a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections began to hit India, Dr. Naresh Ramarajan knew what the country would need: portable oxygen concentrators.

Ramarajan, an emergency room physician and health-tech entrepreneur in Cambridge, saw firsthand how the equipment — which increases the oxygen level in room air and feeds it to patients through tubes attached to their nostrils — saved lives during the second wave in Los Angeles, where he trained and has on occasion returned to help. The concentrators, which can be used at home, allow hospitals to free up beds for the sickest patients.

In a matter of days, Ramarajan and Gitika Srivastava, founders of Navya Network, worked their connections to help arrange for the delivery of 4,500 oxygen concentrators to India. Some have already arrived, but the bulk will be shipped Saturday in a Fedex 777 cargo plane, the largest in its fleet. Final destination: Tata Memorial Centre’s largest hospital in Mumbai.

Ramarajan and Srivastava — who have both lost family and friends in India to COVID-19 — have raised about $2 million so far to fund their effort and plan to keep going because the country needs thousands more oxygen concentrators.

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“Everyday Gitika and I are getting requests,” said Ramarajan. “This is a personal crisis as much as a societal and national crisis.”

Their extraordinary effort is one of many playing out in the Indian diaspora, including in Massachusetts, where leaders of the close-knit community are using their influence and resources to get much-needed medical supplies and other humanitarian relief to a country in the throes of the world’s worst COVID-19 crisis.

They are executives, doctors, and philanthropists from Massachusetts who are tapping their networks and opening up their own wallets, including tech entrepreneur Desh Deshpande, Vertex chief executive Reshma Kewalramani, Progress Software chief executive Yogesh Gupta, Leader Bank chief executive Sushil Tuli, McKinsey & Co. senior partner Nav Singh, venture capitalist Nilanjana Bhowmik, and Instylla chief executive Amar Sawhney.

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Less than 48 hours after Srivastava reached out to Deshpande, a prominent Boston-area tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist, Deshpande was able to raise about $2 million from Boston to Silicon Valley, including a $250,000 donation from his own foundation.

Deshpande said bolstering the capacity of the health care system in India is key to helping the country through the crisis. He saw in Ramarajan and Srivastava the ability to respond quickly because they have worked closely with the Indian health care system through their startup

“I am not an entrepreneur anymore . . . my job is to spark good entrepreneurs,” said Deshpande. “I saw the spark in these two.”

Among those Deshpande reached out to was Sawhney, a veteran of the medical devices industry whose latest startup, Instylla in Bedford, is developing materials to treat tumors and severe bleeding. Like many people of Indian descent living in the United States, Sawhney has been personally affected by the pandemic back home. His mother died last year from COVID, and he has other family members who are recovering.

“Death is only one step away,“ he said. “You can’t help but be involved.”

The magnitude of the crisis, combined with the rapid spread of information on social media, has engaged the Indian community abroad to a degree that Sawhney has never before seen.

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“The government has not been functioning as best as it could. So citizens are getting involved,” he said. “It’s a question of steering help in the right direction.”

Sawhney and his wife, Deepika, have also given to the American India Foundation, which is headquartered in New York and has a Boston chapter with 100 members. AIF, whose Boston group was founded by Merrill Lynch managing director Raj Sharma, has received $20 million in commitments in just over a week. Corporations contributing to the effort include Bank of America, BlackRock, Bristol Myers Squibb, Goldman Sachs, Lowe’s, and Oracle.

First up for the foundation: Ordering 7,500 oxygen concentrators from suppliers in the United States and China. The concentrators, which range in size from a handbag to a small suitcase, filter room air into 90 percent oxygen. The devices cost up to $1,500 each and are considered a good alternative to a liquid oxygen tank.

AIF has contributed $600,000 to Ramarajan and Srivastava’s effort, and is also working to provide 2,500 fully equipped hospital beds across India, which will be part of the permanent health infrastructure after the pandemic is over.

“We are quite humbled by the confidence our donors and supporters have shown in AIF’s ability to run an emergency response operation on the ground and deploy the resources in quick time to maximum impact and save as many lives as possible,” said Nishant Pandey, the foundation’s chief executive.

Last year the foundation also ran a large-scale relief effort, which served more than 500,000 people across the 18 states of India after the country went into a strict lockdown.

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“But the needs and the nature of crisis brought on by the ferocity of the second wave is very different,” Pandey added. “This time around the health infrastructure has crumbled under the pressure of caseload. Also, we see a very high rate of infection and mortality from smaller towns and rural areas where the health infrastructure is at its weakest.”

Like other nonprofits dedicated to serving the needs of India, the Desai Foundation in Bedford, launched by tech entrepreneur Samir Desai, has temporarily pivoted from its primary mission to help women and children in India to COVID care.

The nonprofit, which has experience in creating pop up health care programs, is setting up at least 10 centers in mostly rural areas where infected people can be isolated from their families. The nonprofit also created a “Help Desk” that assists families of those who have succumbed to COVID, from filing a death certificate to applying for aid.

The effort is not cheap, said Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation and Samir’s daughter, but donors over the past week have already contributed $130,000, nearly half the group’s goal.

“We are just overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity,” said Desai.

Deshpande, too, has done more than just work his contacts. He has turned part of a campus he set up in India for entrepreneurial education into an isolation center during the pandemic, and has worked with the Indian government to create a call center staffed with doctors to answer medical questions.

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“The main message,” added Deshpande, is “don’t sit crying. Seek out opportunities and — just chip in and help out.”

Ramarajan and Srivastava, the Cambridge health tech entrepreneurs, say they, too, were bowled over by the response to their request for help, getting their first donation of oxygen concentrators in within days — about 75 units from Community Partners International, a nonprofit that previously arranged oxygen concentrators for Los Angeles.

The pair also have a relationship with Tata Memorial Centre through their startup, Navya, which uses machine learning to assist cancer patients in making complex medical decisions. (Srivastava is Navya’s chief executive, while Ramarajan is chief medical officer.) Tata got Air India to donate the shipping, and the first batch is already deployed in the Indian region of Assam.

Tata in turn relied on Ramarajan and Srivastava to arrange shipping of 2,800 oxygen concentrators that New York-Presbyterian had bought and donated to the Mumbai hospital. Ramarajan connected the hospital with Direct Relief, a humanitarian organization that specializes in emergency relief and helped get oxygen concentrators to LA hospitals during the pandemic.

Direct Relief, which has long worked with Fedex during disasters, got the company to charter a cargo plane for free. Then Ramarajan and Srivastava set out to fill the rest of the plane — raising enough money to load another 1,000 oxygen concentrators, while Direct Relief donated 265,000 KN95 masks.

“The current project snowballed into something big,” said Srivastava. “Individuals who have the right credibility and institutions can make a huge difference.”

Ramarajan and Srivastava are directing donations to Community Partners. A list of other aid efforts can be found here.


Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where Raj Sharma works.