California to India’s Covid catastrophe, a woman’s journey


Maya Vishwakarma, a California resident who runs a small telemedicine clinic in her ancestral village in Madhya Pradesh, saw India’s Covid-19 tragedy unfold in front of her eyes.

Five years ago Maya, who lives with her husband in Fremont since 2010, started a non-profit in her village, Mehragaon in Madhya Pradesh. It manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins and supports underprivileged girls and women.

Struck by the lack of health care in Mehrangaon, two-and-half years ago she started a telemedicine clinic from her home. She witnessed the full impact of the second wave of the pandemic in a country ill-equipped to handle such a disaster.

If people are alive today,” Maya told indica News, “it is not because of the government but people helping each other and thanks to the social media like Twitter and WhatsApp that connected volunteers, supporters and doctors 24/7 to help covid impacted patients in India.”

The situation was like a war zone, she said.

The number of dead bodies at the cremation ground was so high that in Sainkheda, a town in Madhya Pradesh that has a population of over 11,000, many had to leave their homes,” Maya said.

The smoke from the funeral ground was reaching people’s homes and people living in the nearby villages were not able to breathe,” she said.

The district would announce only 37 died, and it’s a complete misrepresentation when I personally know one village that has lost over 70 people,” said Maya.

Local media across India have also reported vast mismatches between the official Covid-19 death toll and the actual number of deaths.

The government controlled everything, including the Covid tests, and Covid patients were hospitalized at certain government authorized health centers, and the hospitals were not prepared,” Maya said.

She moved to the United States to pursue her PhD in chemical and biological engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She eventually dropped out from her PhD and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue her career in cancer biology at the UCSF hospital.

Maya Vishwakarma distributes footwear to residents of Mehragaon, Madhya Pradesh. Photograph courtesy Maya Vishwakarma

Maya, who divides her time between India and the United States, returned in September 2020 and again flew back to India in January this year.

The right information was not there at the ground level, people just said there is a contagious disease has been spread by Tablighi Jamaat, etc,” she said.

When India announced about vaccines, people started saying we have won over the pandemic and became carefree and started going to weddings and events. Festivals, Kumbh Mela, election rallies started,” Maya said.

That was the biggest disaster, people attending the political rallies without masks,” she said.

By March end it was already chaotic. There was no preparation from the government side, no guidelines. The government medical system is so poor… I saw it for the first time, no oxygen, no CT scan machine, nothing… even local villagers were surprised and concerned seeing the status of the local public health center,” Maya said.

Look, every town has a PHC but people never inquired whether we have CT scan, or medicine and oxygen. And the other problem was that the government collaborated with just a few recognized hospitals that can admit Covid patients. Only rich people can afford that… forget the poor and village farmers, senior, disabled.

Her little clinic began overflowing with patients.

We cannot do a Covid test as it is only performed by government run or authorized hospitals, so we used to recommend people not to come to us. But people were so scared, they were not going to the hospital to test fearing they would never return,” she said.

Nobody was going to the town for the test and so we had to suspect and give some medicine,” she said.

Due to the shutdowns there was no transportation and the hospital is maybe 10 miles away, how can you expect a sick person to walk,” she said. “And if by chance you do make it till there, the hospitals were refusing to admit due to lack of oxygen.”

Most rural families live as large units and isolation is not really possible, she pointed out.

More than 80 percent of the people in my village were impacted; though they might have not tested, but we know the symptoms,” she said.

Soon over 100 patients were visiting her little clinic every day “and we couldn’t just turn them away.”

She had to transform one portion of her home into a health center.

I knew I was exposed to Covid patients but I had no choice,” she said. “People would not leave, they would cry and they would think I could save them. I could clearly see the Covid patients dying and it was such a hapless situation…”

Maya then reached out to her friend Falguni Patadia in Maryland, who helped connecting with doctors in the US, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada online.

A doctor attends to a patient via video call in Maya Vishwakarma’s clinic in Mehragaon, Madhya Pradesh. Picture courtesy Maya Vishwakarma

These doctors used to make video calls through WhatsApp, and we used to share vital symptoms and they through WhatsApp, based on the symptoms and conditions, they cannot prescribe but they would advise the medicine,” said Maya.

Another friend, Chetan Agarwal, was helping from Seattle on the phone, checking on patients who needed after care and things like that.

Chetan formed a team and their job was to track the patients,”Maya explained. “We knew once these patients leave the clinic they might not follow the protocol. Their job was to ask whether you have taken the medicine, had water, food, maintaining isolation, etc. Telling them hydration is important and noting their symptoms. The volunteers would update the online sheet and from our center, we would call that person if any difficulty was there.”

Soon, nearby villagers and friends started reaching out to take help, too.

Being a nonprofit the first challenge when more numbers started coming in, we had fewer funds to support, and getting medicine was a challenge,” Maya said.

The government never reached to people living in remote village areas and people were in need of medicines,” she said.

Coming from a healthcare background I knew how to take care and stay isolated, I had only two health staff and we worked nonstop, and my only objective was how to stop the spread without any vaccine in sight.”

First, we have to help the people and save our people. This was the biggest thing, and then convincing your family,” she said. “When your own family members say you are not allowed to your own home. They were scared that they might get infected; we have 14 members in my family.”

Holding her breath for a bit, she said: “I saw this wave coming.”

I tried to convince people in local language on social distance, wearing masks… Since I come from the US they consider me as an educated woman, people listen to me. But I had no words for when they would say, didi, I will die here at your clinic.”

The government, she said, “totally failed to help people.”

The battle was fought by the people and their resources,” she said. “Many people sold jewelry, took loans, sold land just to buy Remdesivir in the black market.”

There has been considerable fund-raising activity in the US in the Indian diaspora but asked if she had received any aid Maya said: “The funding we got was from individual people, friends. We did not receive anything from GiveIndia kind of non-profits.”

We donated 10 oxygen concentrators, there is a local Gandhi society that helped and one of my friends who lives in Ujjain helped,” she said.

Government help still has not reached the tribals and the remote areas,” Maya said. “But the beauty of India is that if you are in pain people get together and work as a team.”

She said hundreds of young college students formed teams on WhatsApp and Twitter and helped strangers who reached out to strangers for help.

They played a huge role and technology played the biggest role in this pandemic,” Maya said. “There was a standard format on social media: patient’s name, age, symptoms and only this much information you post on Twitter, you will get immediate help. “The well-wisher will reach you.”

The government must make bringing health care to the rural people a priority and the Covid-19 pandemic had underlined that fact with too many deaths, Maya said.