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'We want to have families left to go back to': Medics here say Ireland must help India tackle huge Covid-19 wave

Indian healthcare workers in Ireland are “sacrificing ever seeing some family again” in order to care for people here amid the pandemic.

Family members of a person who died due to Covid-19 light the funeral pyre at a crematorium in Jammu, India, yesterday.
Family members of a person who died due to Covid-19 light the funeral pyre at a crematorium in Jammu, India, yesterday.
Image: Channi Anand/AP/Press Association Images

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT needs to do more to support India as the country deals with a huge surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths, members of the Indian community living here have said.

India’s capital New Delhi has extended its lockdown by at least one week as the country recorded almost 350,000 new cases of Covid-19 and 2,767 deaths in just 24 hours – the highest since the start of the pandemic.

There have been 17.6 million cases of the virus and 198,000 deaths in India to date.

Ireland is among the countries to promise to send oxygen concentrators and other supports to India as it battles this catastrophic, record-breaking wave of the virus that has overwhelmed hospitals.

The situation has renewed global calls for a more equitable production and distribution system of Covid-19 vaccines.

Shubhangi Karmakar, a final year medical student at Trinity College Dublin and Vice President of Communications with the Association of Medical Students Ireland (AMSI), said Ireland needs to pressure the UK, EU and USA to “systematically break vaccine patents and end raw material standstills”.

She said watching “a week of relentless death” has been particularly difficult for Indian healthcare workers and students here, some of whom are “sacrificing ever seeing some family again” in order to care for people in Ireland.

Throughout the pandemic, Karmakar has been delivering food and medication to vulnerable people in Ireland.

The 24-year-old told us that it is “a strange time” for Indian medical students living in Ireland, many of whom are sitting their final exams as the pandemic unfolds.

I’ve been hearing from a number of students who are in this perpetual anticipation of bereavement, on top of perpetual job insecurity and the other ways that the system here underserves international students.

“It’s just another way the system actively puts the interests of profit over the interests of public health,” she said.

Karmakar noted that India has the capacity and manufacturing power to produce a Covid-19 vaccine but the country’s hands are tied due to intellectual property rights.

She said the fact certain countries have bought vast quantities of Covid-19 vaccines, including large reserve numbers, while other countries have been left behind highlights a much wider problem about global access to healthcare.

“It just reiterates how lower economically-developed countries, or whatever term you want to use, are still trapped in being beholden to patents or being beholden to the philanthropy of more economically developed countries, in a way that’s not functionally necessary considering India is a global centre of vaccine production and is more than capable of doing it.

“India needs systematic help and not just symptomatic help. It’s vital that Irish people stop seeing India as a warning, but instead an opportunity to rectify some of the massive global health inequality,” Karmakar said.

TRIPS waiver

This Friday, 30 April, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold a meeting to decide on a proposal for a temporary waiver of trade-related and intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for Covid-19 vaccines, which would allow Global South countries such as India to scale up production and access to vaccines.

A number of opposition TDs have called on the Irish government to support the proposal.

Karmakar has also called on Ireland to back the proposal. “I would highly recommend that they do [support it]. I think it’s essential to show solidarity with our fellow people around the world.

I think it’s essential to show solidarity with the people from India who are living in Ireland and are effectively trapped here because of Covid and are not able to see our families who don’t need to be dying right now. The least we can do is make sure that by the end of all this, we still have family to go back to.

Karmakar said that no single company should hold the licensing rights to vaccines as “it makes nation states beholden to the interests of private firms”.

She said any companies or countries who don’t take steps to ensure people all over the world get fair and timely access to Covid-19 vaccines are “complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people”.

“Ireland is very proud of its post-colonial history. But I think Irish people could be more aware that their post-colonial history is still tied to immense privilege in still being economically and culturally and capitalistically proximate to the goals of the UK and USA.”

Headshot Shubhangi Karmakar Source: Tessy Ehiguese

Karmakar said the pandemic needs a truly global response and that Covid-19 will not “go away” until all countries have the situation under control, not just certain countries.

Yesterday the US confirmed that it will begin sharing its entire pipeline of vaccines from AstraZeneca once the vaccine clears federal safety reviews, with as many as 60 million doses expected to be available for export in the coming months.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be cleared for use in the US but is used across the globe.

The news has been welcomed but some have called for more decisive action from the West as many people are likely to contract or die from the virus in the meantime.

‘A losing battle’

Karmakar spoke to her grandparents, who are aged in their 80s, this week for the first time in months. They have not contracted Covid-19 but have long-standing health issues and have been unable to access vital services for the past year.

“It’s incredibly difficult from a personal standpoint. I’ve only got to contact my grandparents for the first time in four months [on Sunday]. They live in Kolkata, a city where one in two people have Covid.

“Having two family members who live in that kind of situation is a constant source of fear. They’ve been shuttered up just to stay alive, they haven’t been able to access certain health services.

“My grandfather has been incredibly unwell for the last year and has just been in and out of ICU. We always think of elderly people as being physically infirm, but elderly people who have long-standing mental health conditions like people in my family, there’s absolutely no support for them. That has been immensely challenging.”

Some of Karmakar’s relatives are training to become doctors in India.

“They’re doing their best, but at this point it’s a losing battle. From what I’m hearing, their access to vaccinations isn’t secure, let alone their access to support to treat patients,” she said.

‘A moral decision’ 

The TRIPS waiver was discussed in the Seanad on Friday. During the debate, independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said it was notable that the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, in its report on the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, “was clear that if we do not provide equitable access, it will prolong the pandemic”.

“They also explicitly identified the TRIPS waiver as a mechanism which we should support, especially given that a similar waiver was crucial in combating AIDS and HIV in the past.

“It is important to remember that while a substantial portion of the world’s population remains vulnerable to Covid-19, those are ideal grounds for the virus to develop new variants and grounds for experimentation for the virus. Those new variants will ultimately affect all of us,” Higgins said.

She noted that many scientists have said it could be six months or more before there is a Covid-19 variant that is resistant to vaccines.

“That is unless we remove access to a significant portion of the world’s population for this virus and its variants, something which we can choose to do if we scale up global manufacturing of vaccines. A significant portion of the money for developing these vaccines was public investment.

“The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine received 97% public funding, Moderna was majority public funding, and Pfizer-BioNTech received €500 million from Germany alone. The public has invested in these vaccines and they must now be treated as a public good. This is one of the key moral decisions we will ever face,” Higgins said.

In response, Minister of State Robert Troy said: “The EU’s current position on the proposed waiver is that the WTO international agreement on trade-related aspects of international property rights, TRIPS, allows countries the flexibility to respond to the concerns raised by the proposers of the waiver.

“Specifically, the TRIPS agreement allows compulsory licensing, which is when a Government permits an entity to produce the patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner.

“The EU has argued that global manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and the distribution networks are the main obstacles that need to be overcome.”

Troy went on to state that, despite this, Ireland still has “a responsibility to speak out for what we believe is right”.

“As other countries have reviewed their positions, it is incumbent on us to review ours, particularly in view of new and emerging information. This is a critical issue and it is morally right to ensure we have a fair and equitable system. I am firmly of the belief that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Troy said he would raise the issue with his government colleagues.

Mandatory hotel quarantine

The Irish government is also considering adding India to the mandatory hotel quarantine list, with a decision expected in the coming days.

Baby Pereppadan, a Fine Gael councillor on South Dublin County Council who is originally from Kerala, said many Indians living here have not seen their families for well over a year.

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He was fortunate to travel to India in February 2020 – just before the pandemic resulted in sweeping travel restrictions from March onwards. However, many others who planned trips last year and this year have been unable to visit loved ones.

Pereppadan’s brother and sister-in-law, who live in Nenagh in Tipperary, are currently in India visiting her parents who have been unwell. “They’re stuck in India at the moment and not sure when they will get home,” the councillor told us.

Pereppadan agrees that India should be added to the MHQ list, saying it is too dangerous not to at the present time.

“Many families are struggling because they have loved ones in India and there are a lot of issues going on there. It is very, very hard at the moment, but I believe the Irish government is doing its best to support the Indian government through the European Union,” Pereppadan said.

He also wants the Irish government to back the TRIPS waiver to help countries like India get quicker access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“India is not getting enough vaccines, hopefully this will improve,” he said.

Oxygen concentrators

In a joint statement issued yesterday, the departments of health and foreign affairs concerned that Ireland is among the European countries contributing to an emergency donation of “vital emergency material, including 700 oxygen concentrators” to India.

The donation is being made from stocks originally purchased by the HSE for use in a field hospital setting, as part of pandemic preparations. These devices draw oxygen from the air and deliver it to the patient at over 90% concentration, the statement noted.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said: “We have all seen the rapidly deteriorating situation in relation to Covid-19 in India. These machines will support frontline healthcare workers in India to deliver care to patients who need it. I am grateful to all those who have been working together over the weekend to make this life-saving donation happen.

“Transportation is being arranged through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism along with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Foreign Affairs through Irish Aid.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney added that Ireland is “among the first (EU) States to confirm concrete support to India”.

“At a time of great difficulty for India, we want to show solidarity with a country and people with whom we have strong historical and modern day relations.  We are glad to provide this support at a time of such need and to be doing so as part of a wider EU response.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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