M.A Siddique, Principal Secretary and Special coordinator for COVID-19 Management for Chennai, Tamil Nadu, was panicking on the weekend of May 2nd. The number of COVID cases in Chennai was rising rapidly to over 40,000 per day. If Chennai followed the same curve as some other cities, it could hit 200,00 daily cases in two weeks. The situation was dire, and the biggest need of the hour was Oxygen (CPAP machines, Oxygen Concentrators and Ventilators). Hospital beds would soon become unavailable, and the impending loss of lives would be due to the lack of resources that can help stabilize people in the initial hours of respiratory distress before they either recovered or got better care from a hospital.
In an act of desperation, Siddique sent a WhatsApp message to his classmates (the ’93 B. Tech batch from IIT Madras) explaining the situation. Anand Rajaraman (Founding Partner at rocketship.vc) saw the message and sprung to action. He called Girish Muckai, President of IIT Madras Foundation, to start a grass roots campaign across IIT Madras Alumni in North America. They were clear that they will use the funds to mobilize equipment to Chennai. After all, IIT Madras alumni were at senior positions in Philips Healthcare, Medtronic, GE Healthcare that manufacture the devices that Siddique was seeking.
Rekha Ranganathan, GM of Imaging Solutions at GE Healthcare, a classmate of Anand and Siddique, also saw the same WhatsApp message. She said that she can help with procuring the equipment. Another classmate, Satish, had an app that would tell them where Oxygen concentrators were deployed. A small team that was intimately aware of the ecosystem and supply chain was formed.
Before the weekend was over, they had raised almost $1m. They needed more. Anand Rajaram and Girish Muckai reached out to M.R. Rangaswami, Founder of Indiaspora. Just the previous weekend, M.R (as he is known to everyone) ran a fundraiser for a “Help India Breathe” campaign. In a 2-hour fundraiser hosted by former monk Jay Shetty (and included several powerful voices like Deepak Chopra, Kunal Nayyar, Lily Singh, Payal Kadakia and others), they raised over $1m. This amount was matched by two prominent billionaire VCs, Vinod Khosla and Ray Dalio. M.R., in turn, reached out to Lena Kannappan, co-founder of ATEA (American Tamil Entrepreneurs Association). Soon a core team was formed, and a WhatsApp group was created. The group included leaders from several (North American) organizations –TNFUSA (Tamil Nadu Foundation), ATMA (American Tamil Medical Association), CTA (California Tamil Academy), FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America) and others.
The first fundraiser was on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 9th
ATEA co-founders Lena Kannappan and Ram Nagappan worked with M.R to quickly pull together prominent business personalities – including Indra Nooyi, former Chairperson of PepsiCo; Guru Gowrappan, CEO of Verizon Media; Girish Mathrubootham, co-founder of FreshWorks; Velchamy Sankarlingam, President of Product and Engineering at Zoom to participate in the fundraiser. Girish Mathrubootham committed to donating Rs. 1 crore during the program. Vijay Prakash participated live from India and rendered some special Mother’s Day songs.
At the conclusion of the event, the goal that the team had set for themselves was not met. It was decided to hold a follow-on fundraiser the following Sunday, May 16th.
Once again, several prominent business personalities participated – including Ram Shriram, Founding Board Member of Google; Bask Iyer, CIO of VMWare; Praveen Singalla, Founder of Diaconia; Senthil Kumar, Chief Risk Officer, BNY Mellon; AG Karunakaran, President of TiE Silicon Valley; Ashwin Bharath, Co-founder and CEO of Revature. On this occasion, Praveen Singalla committed to contributing Rs. 1 crore during the program.
There was also a special message and acknowledgment from the Honorable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru. M K Stalin.
All funds were collected by TNF USA, a registered non-profit organization. TNF has been collecting and disbursing funds to Tamil Nadu for 43+ years (for educational scholarships, assistance during emergencies – including the 2015 floods and 2018 Cyclone Gaja, and other social causes). As a result, they had the necessary FCRA compliance, etc. They also had the necessary personnel (in Tamil Nadu) to collect and disburse the equipment to remote areas of Tamil Nadu.
At the time of writing this, Oxygen Concentrators, PPE Kits, modular oxygen generators, Oximeters and RT-PCR machines were procured and distributed to hospitals in Thiruppur, Erode, Madurai, Pattukkottai, Perambalur, Coimbatore, Thiruvarur and other towns and villages.
A summary of equipment distributed can be seen here
Currently, there is a decrease in the 7-day average of COVID cases in Tamil Nadu. The fervent hope is that this trend continues. The swift action by the leaders of the Tamil organizations in North America and the generous contributions by the diaspora has certainly contributed to addressing the crisis in Tamil Nadu.