I never met Sandhya Sharma.
But my first cousin once removed – Indians would simply call her my “cousin sister” – had a soft spot for my brother, Vijay. They met in 2013 when Vijay travelled to India with my parents in a desperate search for answers about his failing health.
Canadian doctors couldn’t explain why Vijay was losing his ability to walk and talk. Sandhya empathized with his struggles. Not only were they close in age, but her own brother has special needs.
Eight years after that trip – which led to my brother’s diagnosis of a rare metabolic disorder called cerebrotendinous xanthomatosis (CTX) – Sandhya and Vijay are bonded by a different health crisis: COVID-19.
Sandhya, 41, worked as a deputy general manager of corporate communications for Noida Metro Rail Corp. Ltd., a rapid transit system near New Delhi. She likely contracted the novel coronavirus at work.
She succumbed to the illness while in hospital on April 23, during India’s deadly second wave.
“All of a sudden her oxygen level went low,” her mother said. “An irreparable loss for us.”
Sandhya’s life cut tragically short, she left behind a husband and a seven-year-old son among her grieving relatives.
Vijay, 37, is now a long-term care resident in Mississauga. He was already in mourning when he learned of Sandhya’s passing. The virus had ripped through his nursing home, killing his beloved nurse and many elderly residents, some of whom doted on him.
The experience has left him depressed. Avoiding infection has been a hollow victory for him.
This pandemic has taken a terrible toll on my family, and I’m not sure we will ever fully recover. Four of our relatives have died of COVID-19, including two in India. We are, however, far from alone in our grief.
Canadians of Indian ancestry – there are more than 1.4 million of us – are suffering a dual tragedy. Our community is disproportionately infected in Canada, and many of us have also lost family and friends in India.
As we watch the crisis unfold overseas – India’s official death toll has surpassed 337,989 – there is a feeling of helplessness. Images of funeral pyres consuming dead bodies are seared in our minds. Canada’s ban on direct flights from India, while necessary to protect public health, has left bereaved relatives here without proper closure.
Many Canadians are also helping their Indian relatives find oxygen cylinders and paying for their medical care. Others have sent oxygen concentrators by FedEx. We may live oceans apart, but we are desperate to help our loved ones.
Canada is also sending money, medicine, ventilators and other equipment. Aid is flowing not long after India answered Ottawa’s call for help on vaccines. But there is so much more the two countries can do now and in the future to recover from this pandemic and to prepare for the next one.
In fact, this health crisis is creating enormous possibilities for Canada and India to reset their damaged bilateral relationship and collaborate to our mutual advantage. We must work together to solve each other’s pain points so our two countries can heal from this humanitarian tragedy.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to increase Canada’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines this past February, he called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “friend.” Perhaps he was feeling charitable.
Their relationship started to sour in 2016 after Mr. Trudeau made a flippant remark: “I have more Sikhs in my Cabinet than Modi does.” It was not the right thing to say because Sikhism is only one of many religions in India.
Bilateral relations, though, really took a tumble during Mr. Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India in 2018. The gaffe-filled visit plumbed new depths of discord.
Mr. Trudeau’s sartorial choices were the least of his problems. A scandal erupted after Jaspal Atwal, a Canadian convicted of the 1986 attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister, attended Mr. Trudeau’s reception in Mumbai and had his photo taken with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
Mr. Atwal was later removed from the guest list for a subsequent event. But Mr. Trudeau’s national security adviser at the time, Daniel Jean, worsened the controversy by telling journalists that rogue factions within the Indian government were actually to blame for Mr. Atwal’s attendance. The Indian government called the allegations “baseless and unacceptable.” Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians later confirmed that Mr. Trudeau’s office was responsible for inviting Mr. Atwal.
It was disappointing to see tensions flare again during the pandemic. Mr. Trudeau voiced support for Indian farmers protesting the reform of agricultural policies. His comments were construed by New Delhi as interference in India’s internal affairs.
Nevertheless, Mr. Modi answered Mr. Trudeau’s call for assistance on vaccines and leaned on the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, to help Canada. Although some doses arrived, India’s escalating crisis prompted export restrictions to meet domestic needs.
Now that India is in the throes of a crisis, Mr. Trudeau should return the favour to his friend.
Specifically, Canada should support a proposal by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines to increase the global supply of the life-saving shots.
The United States has pledged its support for a waiver. Canada, though, remains noncommittal. It’s infuriating because Ottawa appears more concerned about angering vaccine makers than doing right by developing countries.
“We also need support from Canada,” Ajay Bisaria, India’s High Commissioner to Canada, said in a telephone interview. “We’re not safe until everyone is safe.”
India, he said, has ambitious plans to vaccinate all adults by the end of this year. That’s precisely why Canada should also replace the AstraZeneca doses it purchased from COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing alliance set up to primarily help developing countries. Not replacing them now is shameful because Ottawa is boasting that it is vaccinating people at one of the fastest rates in the G20. Other high-income countries are already pledging to share more of their vaccines with developing countries.
Mr. Trudeau’s inaction on these vaccine issues is incredibly short-sighted. After this crisis is over, India could easily help Canada scale up its own vaccine production through strategic partnerships and targeted investments.
Canada’s inability to mass manufacture COVID-19 vaccines has left us perilously dependent on foreign sources. It’s why our supply has been so inconsistent.
A homegrown COVID-19 vaccine is in clinical trials and Ottawa recently earmarked $200-million for domestic vaccine production and research. But Canada must do more to prepare for the next pandemic.
Canadian and Indian companies could collaborate on pharmaceuticals, while our medical research institutions should pursue joint ventures.
As the world’s largest democracy, India is a more suitable research partner for Canada than China. There are growing national security concerns about Canadian universities partnering with people and entities linked to the Chinese government, including on foreign funding and the transfer of intellectual property. If those partnerships cease, India could help fill the void.
Another area of potential collaboration is the manufacture of personal protective equipment. Indian textile and garment manufacturers did a remarkable job of pivoting to PPE production during the pandemic. Commercial partnerships could prevent future shortages in Canada.
There are other obvious opportunities for Canadian manufacturers. India still imports 80 per cent of its medical equipment from other countries, including the United States, Germany and China. Why not Canada?
“The attempts should be to widen the co-operation and contact and communication, going beyond the two top leaders,” said Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at the foreign policy think tank Gateway House, who served as India’s Consul General in Toronto from 1994 to 1997.
“I think it is a mistake to keep focusing on these two individuals. It is much better to widen because we are large countries. We are federal countries and there are so many stakeholders in the relationship.”
Monsoon season is under way in India and the rains are offering hope to rural residents affected by COVID-19. Much of India’s agricultural land is dependent on the rainfall, which is expected to provide a welcome boost to rural incomes.
There are tentative signs that India’s second wave is plateauing, but the health crisis is far from over. New daily cases still topped 134,150 this week, which is staggering even if they’re down significantly from a peak of 414,188 recorded on May 6. Another surge of infections is possible.
“I think one lesson the second wave should teach us is not to be complacent,” Mr. Bisaria said. “Certainly we need to be prepared for the third wave, which is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ ”
His caution should give us pause. It is a remarkable change in tone for Indian officials. Mere months ago, Mr. Modi told the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue that his “country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”
Canada, which has had its own struggles with complacency, would be wise to learn from India’s harrowing experience. The variants of concern that fuelled India’s second wave are being transmitted here, too.
Mr. Bisaria offers us four pieces of advice. First, keep vaccinating and using lockdowns on a conservative basis. He is also urging countries to increase information sharing so variants can be monitored on an international level. Third, public-health systems need to be strengthened so they can rapidly scale up during a surge of infections. Lastly, global co-operation is needed on pandemic preparedness, including for research, medicines and vaccines.
India and Canada can learn from each other about bolstering public-health systems and strategize on solving shared challenges such as vaccine rollouts. There are, in fact, plenty of mutual enrichment opportunities. Officials from Canadian provinces and Indian states should be in regular contact about the delivery of health care services.
India plans to increase health care spending by 135 per cent, according to its 2021 budget. New Delhi should draw on Canada’s experience with universal health care when building out its infrastructure, including primary care centres.
Social medicine, which looks at how socio-economic factors impact health, has also never been more relevant for both countries. The pandemic has shown us, for instance, that Canadians of South Asian descent are at higher risk of infection than other groups because of factors that include systemic racism, crowded living and language barriers.
What if the thousands of foreign-trained doctors in Canada, who are important cultural bridges, had their credentials recognized and could be mobilized to relieve staffing shortages here at home and in global hot spots such as India?
Mr. Bisaria is also correct to call for more global co-operation. Many multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization are in need of reform. Canada should take a leading role in rebuilding them as they are foundational for global health co-operation.
Canada should also participate in the health initiatives spearheaded by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal four-country alliance consisting of India, the United States, Japan and Australia, Mr. Bhatia said. The Quad, as it is called for short, is focused on a range of security issues affecting the Indo-Pacific. The alliance recently announced a “Quad Vaccine Partnership” to produce at least one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022. Its four core members are also collaborating with “Quad Plus” countries New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam on combatting the pandemic. Canada would be a natural addition to the “Quad Plus” group given our shared democratic values, Mr. Bhatia added.
“This is a good opportunity to use the health crisis to plead for greater attention to expansion of the relationship between India and Canada at various levels,” Mr. Bhatia said.
In Indian culture, a person’s sense of self is located in the community rather than in the individual. For that reason, there is a long tradition of our peoples helping each other, including on matters of health.
For instance, a neurologist in the southwestern state of Kerala, where my family traces its origins, was the first to suspect that my brother Vijay had CTX. His clinical notes gave doctors in Canada the necessary guidance to reach a diagnosis.
Our family, meanwhile, has offered financial help to Indian relatives in times of illness. Among them was my father’s cousin, Annapoorni Sankariammal (Thankam) Parameshwaran, whose kidneys began failing many years ago. She, too, fell victim to India’s second wave. A retired Kerala state government worker, Thankam likely contracted the virus in hospital during her dialysis treatment. Since her health was already compromised, she was unable to fight the infection. She died at the age of 73 in a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city, on May 1.
Her husband, who was also infected with COVID-19, has recovered. Now he and their twin children are mourning her passing along with relatives around the world.
Such stories of loss are also making this a painful moment for the Indian diaspora. The emergence of COVID heroes, however, serves as an important reminder to bereaved families that ours is a life-affirming culture.
Some have held “oxygen langars” in India to provide free oxygen to COVID-19 patients. These citizen-led services rely on pooled supplies of oxygen concentrators to provide breathing assistance to patients who can’t access hospital care. It’s a pandemic spin on the Sikh tradition of distributing free food in langars, or community kitchens, located in gurdwaras.
Others are pint-sized community champions. Licypriya Kangujam, a nine-year-old social media activist in New Delhi, spent her savings to buy oxygen concentrators for hospitals.
Canada, too, has its heroes. Mississauga’s Kothari family, operators of the Kothari Group real estate development company, pledged a large sum to help Indian hospitals. There’s also Narinder Dhami, managing partner of Marigold Capital in Toronto, who helped set up the India COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide aid from Canada.
“India is a leading indicator,” said Ms. Dhami, pointing to infections in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Nepal. “It is about contributing to ensure that there’s human dignity and health and safety all around the world.”
We need more initiatives like these to forge closer connections between our two countries. As we condole each other, let’s strengthen ties at the community level but also in health, business and government spheres.
Our shared trauma with this horrible virus can lead to better collaboration going forward and a collective opportunity to heal.
One Ontario neighbourhood had some of the worst COVID-19 positivity rates in Canada, and for the South Asian communities who call it home, the pandemic has been a challenge. The Globe and Mail is partnering with local journalists to tell its story, including dispatches in the Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu languages.
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