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'Without Saying Goodbye': St. Louis Indian Community Reacts To COVID Crisis In India

Auditorium of the Hindu Temple and Culture Center in downtown St. Louis (taken before the pandemic).
Prasanna S. Ayer
Hindu Temple of St. Louis
Members of the Hindu Temple gather at an event before the pandemic. The temple has raised $18,000 so far in an effort to send medical equipment to India, which currently has more COVID cases than anywhere else in the world.

In mid-April, Rukmini “Mini” Chilakamarri began hearing accounts of her extended family in India falling ill to the coronavirus.

“It’s too close to home when your own family members are disappearing, one by one, and very sad,” she said.

Chilakamarri, 60, has been residing in St. Louis for over 20 years but has family in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh and other states throughout India. In the midst of her home country’s devastating spike of COVID-19, Chilakamarri has lost six family members, ages 26 to 70.

“Age is not a factor,” she said, “and then they pass on without saying goodbye to anyone, and there is no closure.”

India is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the world, with a record-breaking 400,000 daily case count as of this week. Hospitals are overburdened, and citizens have taken to social media to track down ventilators and medical supplies.

Meanwhile in the United States, Indian immigrants and Indian Americans are forming fundraising campaigns across the country to send aid back to India.

“Everyone is being impacted one way or another,” said Srini Rajinikanth Gangavarapu, board chairman of the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, who has family residing in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana in India’s southern region. He described the current state of India as apocalyptic.

“Back home, we have our sisters, mothers, fathers, all our families are there, and we don't know when we are going to hear the bad news. That's the kind of scare we are undergoing,” he said.

There are 4 million Indian Americans living in the United States, and in 2020, Indians became the largest foreign-born community in St. Louis.

Both Gangavarapu and Chilakamarri said it has been “indescribable” to cope with not being able to say their final goodbyes or partake in funeral traditions. The Biden administration implemented travel restrictions on people coming from India on Tuesday. Over a dozen countries including Australia, Canada, the U.K. and Singapore have restricted incoming and outgoing flights.

“Because of COVID they cannot travel, they can't see the last rites. Even to think about this is something next to impossible,” Gangavarapu said.

To ease the feeling of helplessness, the Hindu Temple of St. Louis launched a fundraiser for COVID-19 relief on their website last week. Within the first five days, the temple, located in Ballwin, raised $18,000. Gangavarapu is confident the temple can hit its target of $50,000 by the end of this week.

The Hindu Temple of St. Louis has launched a fundraiser to send Covid-19 aid to India, one of the few organizations in the area to do so.
Prasanna S. Ayer
Hindu Temple of St. Louis
The Hindu Temple of St. Louis has launched a fundraiser to send COVID-19 aid to India, one of the few organizations in the area to do so.

Dr. G.V. Naidu is a volunteer coordinator for the temple’s fundraiser. He was involved in the temple’s founding in 1988 and served as president and adviser for three decades.

“Some of our [temple] members, their family members already died,” he said.

While Naidu said his family is doing OK, the need is great across the country. “We have to support the general population. Poverty is so rampant in India not many people can afford medications as well as hospitalizations,” he said.

Naidu also expressed grave concern for the B.1.617 variant that emerged in India during this recent surge, which scientists have dubbed the “double mutant.”

The B.1.617 variant has been located in 17 countries including the United States.

So far, $12,000 from the Hindu Temple of St. Louis’ fundraiser has been used to purchase ventilators, oxygen cylinders and other medical supplies for hospitals in India. Some money will be sent to the Red Cross in Delhi. Coordination efforts with the Indian Consulate in Dallas are also underway to transport medical supplies from the U.S., Naidu said.

“Whatever we contribute is like a drop in the ocean,” Naidu said, “but it helps whatever little it is.”

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