While canvassing in North Philadelphia on Sunday, Shruti Pant met an older woman watching a baseball game in a park who said she didn’t want to get vaccinated.
Pant, 48, began about a week ago to use her free time between jobs as a software engineer to travel from Piscataway, N.J., to volunteer at Esperanza Community Vaccination Center in Hunting Park. On Sunday, her task was to share vaccine information in North Philadelphia neighborhoods.
She told the woman in the park how to get vaccinated at Esperanza, and the next day, that woman showed up to receive her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Pant was there to offer the woman a wheelchair and helped her to a cab after she got her shot.
“I was feeling so happy that this person was coming,” said Pant.
She’s among hundreds from the American branch of the Hindu nonprofit Sewa International who have volunteered at Esperanza and the Convention Center, Philadelphia’s two federally managed mass vaccination centers.
Sewa is a Sanskrit word for selfless service, Pant said.
“In our Indian culture we learn from our childhood sewa is the ultimate goal,” she said.
About 200 people from the organization have assisted at the two sites since March. Many are local, though some have come from as far away as California. Their tasks include crowd control, helping people register for second appointments, assisting people with disabilities, and community outreach. They help relieve some of the burden on the public health and military personnel at the sites, said Justice Colbert, a Federal Emergency Management Agency volunteer coordinator at the Convention Center.
“They’re able to plug in anywhere staffing is needed,” she said.
The volunteers, some of whom hail from India, say the chance to help fight COVID-19 here has taken on even greater meaning as they watch the virus ravage that nation.
“It is very painful,” said Vijay Mallampati, a Malvern man who has helped organize volunteer efforts in Philadelphia. “Sometimes you get into the tears thinking about this.”
COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on India’s 1.3 billion people since February. The country has reported 220,000 deaths and more than 20 million cases, with almost half of those reported in the last three months, according to the Associated Press, though those official numbers are believed to be undercounted. The United States has reported 32.5 million cases and more than 578,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
The rise of variants and a government decision to allow massive gatherings for religious observances and political rallies have contributed to India’s surge. The result has been a health-care disaster, with people dying outside hospitals and a shortage of basic supplies like oxygen.
“It makes me feel really helpless,” said Anurag Tadapaneni, an 18-year-old from Monroe, N.J., volunteering at the Convention Center.
His grandmother lives in Hyderabad, a city in southern India. “We can’t really do anything except sending donations, calling every day.”
Volunteering at the FEMA sites, he said, is a way “the energies are channeled.”
Sewa’s national aid effort also includes volunteer assistance in Texas and Colorado, and donations to India, including 2,184 oxygen concentrators that arrived Monday, said Syam Kosigi, Sewa USA’s vice president for organization. Those devices are highly sought in India, as they can be used at home to provide oxygen-rich air for people in respiratory distress who may be turned away from hospitals. Sewa has raised almost $7.5 million toward a $10 million goal for more of the devices.
Pranitha Esarapu, of Downingtown, was born in India but received most of her schooling in the United States. She said two of her uncles in India had to be put on ventilators, though both seem to be recovering. Her family has begun hearing from relatives they rarely speak to, and those calls often bear news of another person falling sick.
“We get phone calls every night from India,” Esarapu said.
About 115,000 Indian Americans live in Pennsylvania, with most calling the Philadelphia area home.
Gajanan Dhapodkar, a 66-year-old professor of fashion design at the Academy of Art University in California’s Bay Area, was in Philadelphia for the week to help at the FEMA clinics. Originally from Mumbai, he goes to India every winter to visit his brother and sister, but because of COVID-19 he hasn’t been since January 2020. In that time, he has learned that four family members and friends have died due to the virus. Less than a week ago, a 48-year-old nephew died from COVID-19.
“After you cry so many times you don’t have any more drops in your eyes,” Dhapodkar said.
He has thrown himself into coronavirus aid both here and abroad, sending money overseas and creating tutorial videos on how to sew a face mask.
The outreach efforts have been eye-opening for younger volunteers as well. Arjun Menon, a recent Drexel University graduate from West Chester, said he has found surprising vaccine hesitancy among younger people in Hunting Park. He’s heard people say they don’t want to be guinea pigs, even though vaccinations have been underway since December.
The COVID-19 surge in India “colors our presence here a little differently,” Menon said
India has been vaccinating at a rate of 2.5 million a day, according to Reuters, but less than 9.5% of its population has received at least one shot. The United States has promised to ship raw materials for vaccine manufacturing to the country and is expected to send doses of AstraZeneca vaccine as well.
The demand for vaccine in India contrasts with Esperanza, where recent vaccination rates have dipped far below its capacity to administer more than 1,000 shots a day.
“You have one line of a hundred or a thousand people and you have one volunteer” in India, Dhapodkar said. “Here we have 50 volunteers and you see one person. I don’t know how to fill that gap.”