As India struggles to cope with a shocking second wave of Covid-19, help from the international community has finally come flooding in: Resources ranging from food to medical supplies are aimed at providing a measure of relief from a pandemic claiming some 4,000 lives each day.

But distributing those goods is proving difficult, according to former India-based fellow Derek Mitchell (2007-2009)—now the director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Holdeen India Program, which supports aid efforts across the country. New restrictions on foreign aid, weak links between major donors and grassroots groups, as well as a shortage of local manpower all pose formidable challenges, he says.

One of the chief impediments in recent weeks—when daily cases reached beyond 300,000—was alarmingly straightforward: Too many aid workers and other activists were falling ill and many dying. “I’ve never sent so many condolence messages in my life,” Mitchell said.

News reports have captured images of mountains of supplies apparently stuck at Indian airport hangars, grounded by what locals say is poor communication and bureaucratic hurdles.

In cases when aid has made it to communities in need, there’s often an organizational gulf between those delivering shipments and workers on the ground who could distribute the resources. Mitchell recounts stories from the first wave of the pandemic last year, when truckloads of goods would arrive in impoverished communities without any further plan of action.

“You need to have an organization locally that knows how to manage a situation like that because in some cases, you’ve had a chaotic rush on your hands,” he said.

Sending money directly to grassroots aid groups is often a simpler solution, Mitchell adds, because it allows local activists to source whatever they need.

But there’s another problem: India’s new restrictions on funding for civil society, introduced last September.

Those new rules are creating extra hurdles, especially for small groups that lack the institutional capacity to address the requirements.

“Increasingly we hear stories—including from outstanding groups we work with—that ‘We really need support right now, but we don’t yet have this new permission, or that new bank account, which the government of India requires us to have,’” he said.

International organizations such as the UUA’s Holdeen India Program are playing a crucial role by quickly getting resources to local partners—some of whom Mitchell first met during his ICWA fellowship—tackle the crisis. That’s led to an array of successful projects, such as converting empty schools and offices to quarantine centers in rural communities.

As India’s healthcare system continues buckling under the weight of the pandemic, marred by what critics also say is official mismanagement, similar efforts will be more crucial than ever.

And in the absence of better bureaucratic planning, millions of suffering Indians are counting on it.
Covid-19 vaccination queue, May, 1 2021 (Ganesh Dhamodkar, Wikimedia Commons)