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Connecting the dots: A humbling experience of exporting Oxygen Concentrators

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agarwalvj
agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

The second wave in April/May in India registered as many as 300,000 COVID patients every day for weeks. The crisis had many challenges but the biggest was the limited availability of life-saving medical grade oxygen across India. Unprecedented war-like efforts using road transportation, trains, Air Force and cargo planes, and Navy ships were mobilized yet the demand for oxygen outpaced the supply. At the same time, the need for oxygen concentrators (OC) surged which can deliver 5-10 liters of oxygen per minute, typically with 90+% purity to patients not needing admission in ICUs. The families of struggling patients, political leaders of opposition parties, and media critics were squarely blaming the Government without connecting the dots and knowing the logistics of mobilizing resources. The following is an example of a humbling experience which thousands of NRIs and NGOs can relate to who exported OCs to India as gifts for families or donated for humanitarian causes.

It started on or around May 8 when Vidya Gyan, a U.S.-based NGO, with its philanthropic footprint in district Saharanpur, received a call if we could help. While 14 OCs were delivered on May 28 for tertiary-level community health centers, the effort behind the scene is a story of many NGOs, big and small, who were caught unaware of the challenges. This story connects the dots of the journey in time for 3 weeks, how dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of person-hours chasing the OCs in the U.S., China, India, and Europe. It may not be an overstatement calling it a logistical nightmare until it came together to a happy ending. But first the larger picture about OCs in India.

There were many media reports India needing as many as 200000 OCs with a deepening crisis. This prompted the foreign aid of nearly 18000 OCs, 7482 by the Sewa International; 2000 by BCCI, 400 by Trip.com, and hundreds of smaller donations like 14 OCs by a lesser-known Vidya Gyan. How ironic that the NGOs and the world helping India deal with the crisis, yet plenty of people in India were preying on helpless patients and profiteering through hoarding and price gouging (graphic above). The black market of OCs was hot with the arrest of Navneet Kalra in Delhi (with over 500 OCs) making the headlines. It is alleged that imported OCs from China were sold at an exorbitant price of Rs 50,000 to 70,000 against its cost of Rs 16,000 to Rs 22,000. What a mix of kind-hearted people trying to save lives to those who profit in the time of national and global crisis. I surmise that for many, human “greed” took over the spirit of  “giving.”

As the need for OCs continued to rise, the Government waived the import duty and lowered the GST for family use OC gifts and empowered States to waive GST for gifts to the State government. For example, Vidya Gyan’s gift to the district administration was totally GST exempt. The GST exemption approval with the speed of light in itself is part of the untold story- an email sent on Sunday, May 16 at 12:29 PM and the approval received by Monday, May 17, 8:32 AM, only in about 20 hours.

The untold story of many may have involved global networks of the interconnected world. Our humbling and learning experiences started with the Vidya Gyan team searching online, calling many other NGOs to join hands, and reaching out to friends in the U.S., India, and China. People were very helpful but almost every lead led to disappointment because the demand for OCs far exceeded supply. Then a pleasant surprise; one team member found a Samaritan in Switzerland who seemed to have helped NGOs and individuals in getting the OCs shipped to India.

We contacted this individual on May 11 with numerous follow-up phone calls and messages every day. We deliberated the needs, budgets, and logistics while still kept trying if OCs could be procured in the U.S. or India. As the doors were shutting one by one, finally we transferred funds on May 18 to have Phillips made OCs shipped from Poland to New Delhi via Germany with the shipping agent in the U.K. Another pleasant coincidence; the Samaritan in Switzerland, we later found out, and our team member hailed from the same town, Bareilly (referenced in a famous song- Jhoomka Gira re Bareilly ke Bazzar me). 

This journey in time and space made us realize the world is truly an interconnected global village. For example, in connecting the dots, I spoke with someone for the first time through my friend’s network who had sent 10 OCs for families directly from China to India before the availability of OCs became a crisis in itself. He was very considerate and called China on our behalf to find that China had far too many orders on hand to accept any more. The best part is that we made many new friends along the way, a blessing in disguise.

This is also a story of lifelong learning on one’s toes. I had not known or heard about OCs until the unfortunate second wave of coronavirus gripped India nor I had dealt with the logistical challenges of shipping overseas. How do you trust an unknown supplier in Poland and risk transferring funds based on an invoice in Polish with different banking systems? Our trust was anchored in our friend in Switzerland. I know of one case that transferred funds to China and still waiting for concentrators to be shipped for nearly a month.

The shipping included three airports for customs clearance- Poland (the origin), Germany (in transit), and New Delhi (destination). Not surprisingly, the shipment was delayed due to customs requirements in Poland itself. While modern technology-enabled real-time tracking, it also caused anxiety when the shipment got held up/delayed. The time difference between the countries was equally interesting. While we were proactively trying to get the OCs to India, somewhere in the back of our minds, we hoped that conditions in India would improve and OCs were not needed. We were on an emotional roller coaster as we worked through the process.

The readers must understand that despite the formidable technology and tools during this pandemic, the United States had an alarming number of deaths (about half a million). We could communicate 24×7 globally, organize telehealth sessions for advice in real-time, ship medical supplies and equipment, and develop vaccines at an unprecedented scale and speed. India with a much larger population and poor health infrastructure did relatively well in comparison. Yet our appetite for constantly criticizing India’s handling of COVID-19 is never-ending with some people, politicians, and media completely negating and politicizing the pandemic.

We are pleased that tens of thousands of OCs are at their respective destinations and the conditions are improving in India and globally. However, we are humbled to realize what India may have experienced in mounting the war-like efforts. We must be grateful to the leaders, administration, health professionals, other front-line workers, and the people helping people tirelessly. We must never stop being critical for the right reasons but not without connecting the dots and realizing that it is not always linear. The mid-points in any journey have many hiccups and a good reminder of our real-life experiences being non-linear even if the endpoint seems “easy” from the other side.

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agarwalvj
agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.
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