Two planes lifted off early Saturday from Newark airport bound for Mumbai, each stuffed with oxygen equipment and other critical medical aid to help India battle what is now the world’s worst outbreak of COVID-19.
The airlift was organized in part by a group of Massachusetts business executives of Indian descent, who in the space of just a few days assembled millions of dollars in equipment and donations for the virus-ravaged country.
The flights are part of a local effort anchored by Naresh Ramarajan and Gitika Srivastava, founders of Navya Network, who are working their connections to supply thousands of oxygen concentrators, which are smaller medical devices that can be used in homes to help infected patients breathe. They’ve raised about $2.5 million so far, and even added a second plane to fly the donated material to India on Saturday: a Boeing 777 cargo plane donated by FedEx, loaded with 3,400 oxygen concentrators and other medical products, and an Air India passenger plane with several hundred more oxygen concentrators. Air India expects to bring more oxygen concentrators on other regularly scheduled flights, and there is another large cargo shipment scheduled for later this month.
Their work is one of several ways that executives, doctors, and philanthropists from Massachusetts are corralling support for a country desperately in need of medical supplies. The American India Foundation has donated $600,000 to Ramarajan and Srivastava’s group. A second organization, Direct Relief, is helping coordinate the Fedex shipment.
Local fund-raising efforts received a boost when former athenahealth chief executive Jonathan Bush personally committed to match up to $500,000 in donations to help AIF raise $1 million, which will fund the delivery of 1,000 concentrators. He sent an e-mail Friday morning to his large network of contacts, saying that as a successful tech entrepreneur, he’d “be nowhere without India,” and inviting them to attend a Zoom fund-raiser scheduled for Saturday night for the foundation.
“Indian infrastructure is not sufficient to respond to the systemic shock that COVID inflicts. ... Thousands of people a day, who would easily weather their infections here, are dying there,” Bush said in his e-mail. “We can impact this — just us few folks reading this — and massively change the course of world events if we act decisively.”
Raj Sharma, a Merrill Lynch managing director who founded AIF’s Boston Chapter, expects Saturday’s fund-raiser to “blow past $1 million.”
Nishant Pandey, chief executive of the national AIF branch, said he had “goosebumps reading the e-mail,” and added that the foundation has a strong presence in India, and well as relationships with government agencies, which should help streamline the distribution of aid coming into the country. He said a donation of $1 million would impact tens of thousands of patients who need access to oxygen over the next three months.
Bush, chairman of Boston health care startup Firefly Health, praised AIF’s ability to deliver the materials so quickly into the Indian health system.
“It is hard to get things onto the ground in these types of situations, during chaos and confusion,” Bush said in an interview. “These guys have done such a good job ... it is rare to have such a clean opportunity to have impact.”
AIF, which is based in New York, has received $23 million in India COVID relief commitments in just over a week, with corporations including Bank of America, BlackRock, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Oracle contributing. Sharma said the support has been overwhelming, and he said he thinks it speaks to the urgency of the crisis.
“I’ve gotten 30 to 40 unsolicited calls from people saying ‘Raj, how do we give money?’,” Sharma said. “I’ve never seen this in any kind of calamity before. Lives are getting lost, and you can’t just wait around. ... We need air to breathe.”
A list of other aid efforts can be found here.