COVID: India’s Sikh community escalates amid pandemic | Asia | An in-depth look at current events from across the continent | DW
Harteerath Singh, who lives in the city of Gurgaon in northern India, has contracted the coronavirus twice. In both cases, it took a while for him to recover, to come back and lead the work of his nonprofit on the ground.
The Hemkunt Foundation was established by Harteerath’s father in 2010, but this year the NGO was catapulted into the spotlight after providing thousands of oxygen cylinders – for free – to COVID patients with breathing difficulties. .
This organization is not the only organization providing humanitarian aid amid India’s COVID crisis. The UK-based international nonprofit Khalsa Aid and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) are also leading relief work on the ground to fill gaps in medical supplies. There is a common thread between these organizations: their faith.
All three base their work on the tenets of Sikhism, a religious minority in India that was wrongly called “anti-national” and “secessionist” earlier this year, during massive farmer protests against the country’s controversial agricultural reforms. government in the country.
“Well-being for all” is the guiding principle
The Hemkunt Foundation has a guiding principle, “Sarbat da bhala” (welfare for all), which derives from the Sikh scriptures.
“It started out as a passion project, just to do our part by giving back,” said Harteerath.
But in 2013, on their way to Gurdwara Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh pilgrimage site in northern Uttarakhand state, the family found themselves stranded after a massive downpour. More than 5,000 people lost their lives in the floods that followed.
The family made it out alive, but the incident left an indelible mark on their lives.
In the years that followed, the foundation worked in all states of India and abroad, even providing humanitarian aid to the Philippines following the eruption of Taal Volcano last year.
India’s unprecedented oxygen crisis
When the second wave of COVID hit India hard in April, healthcare infrastructure collapsed under the weight of a massive number of coronavirus cases. At its peak, India reported more than 400,000 new infections and 4,000 deaths a day, devastating hospitals and crematoriums. Experts believe the real numbers are much higher.
Many cities have faced a severe shortage of oxygen cylinders, with patients and their families running from hospital to hospital in the hope of getting a hospital bed equipped with medical oxygen. The scarcity gave rise to black markets, which flourished while ordinary citizens were at their wit’s end.
Harteerath and her team of volunteers launched an “oxygen langar” where they provided free cylinders to patients with declining oxygen levels. Long queues began to form outside the foundation’s office in Gurgaon, prompting them to set up a makeshift oxygen center, which could accommodate up to 500 people.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve launched an open request – if your area needs help, contact us on our support number,” Harteerath said.
Setting up alternative COVID facilities
As many hospitals were unable to accommodate COVID patients, some organizations decided to use their own space to set up healthcare facilities. DSGMC, a religious organization, has set up the Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur COVID Care Center in a local gurdwara, or Sikh temple in Delhi.
The facility is equipped with medical supplies and oxygen support for patients who cannot get a bed at a local hospital.
In the event that patients cannot make it to the facility, the organization arranges the delivery of oxygen cylinders to their homes. An ambulance service has been set up to take patients to health facilities.
Finally, the community kitchens of local gurdwaras prepare food packages every day to feed thousands of people, including COVID patients, migrant workers and those in need.
From secessionist to savior
The work these organizations do is not surprising. Sikhism, say its followers, enshrines the spirit of “seva” or service, which is not limited by class, caste, gender or religion.
However, timing is crucial.
Just a few months ago, this community was branded as secessionist or “Khalistani” by sections of the mainstream Indian media and right-wing trolls for its support for Indian farmers, who were protesting against three controversial farm laws.
Khalsa Aid received a lot of vitriol for its support to farmers earlier this year. The nonprofit, which has provided aid across the world, including Syria, northern Iraq, Yemen and Greece, was under the scanner of the National Agency for Indian investigation, only to have the investigation postponed indefinitely.
This happened shortly after the organization set up food stalls, foot massagers and geysers for farmers protesting at the Delhi border.
While a team remains at the protest sites, thousands of Khalsa Aid volunteers are now involved in distributing oxygen concentrators to those in need.
“Our religion has taught us only one thing: ‘to recognize the whole human race as one,'” said Gurpreet Singh, administrator of Khalsa Aid India.
“We have no wickedness in our hearts, even for those who have made unimaginable allegations against us. Tomorrow, if they are in need, we will not think twice before helping.”
“The satisfaction you get from serving someone is inexplicable,” Singh added.
But they have a long way to go.
Harteerath has just returned from Jharkhand State in eastern India. A week earlier, he was in Jammu and Kashmir, carrying supplies to often overlooked areas.
“Our funding has slowed down because many people think the COVID crisis in India is over. This is not true – the virus has moved inside our country,” Harteerath explained. “We need more support than ever.”