NEW DELHI (RNS) — Only 30 miles from the northern Indian city of Amritsar, oxygen tanks that could help those caught up in India’s second COVID-19 onslaught lie unused.
Across the Pakistan border, 44-year-old Sufi Muslim philanthropist Faisal Edhi is ready to move his fleet of 50 ambulances and medical supplies like oxygen to India, which is clocking half a million COVID-19 cases and more than 4,000 recorded deaths a day — the highest in the world.
But even as the virus is burning through India’s cities, towns and villages, ravaging homes and livelihoods, there’s little Edhi can do but hope. Requests made a month ago to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow entry into the country have been met with silence.
Edhi wrote to Modi April 23, promising medical and humanitarian aid to India if his volunteers are allowed to cross over the Pakistan-India border. Normally tightly controlled, border crossings have been all but closed since the second wave of coronavirus hit India this spring.
Last March, Modi had proposed that South Asian countries must “chalk out a strong strategy to fight the coronavirus,” but the pandemic protocols have foundered on Pakistan-India mistrust and hostility.
“We are ready to extend our services to any critical region if the Indian prime minister shows us the green light,” says Edhi, who runs more than 300 shelters for the destitute in Pakistan, along with a 100-bed hospital, clinics, women’s shelters and a rehabilitation center for drug addicts.
Edhi also spearheads one of the world’s largest volunteer ambulance networks — operating more than 2,000 ambulances — which he deploys in Pakistan during droughts, floods and epidemic outbreaks. Edhi has also been on the frontlines of COVID-19 relief work in his home country.
“Aid has poured into India from the U.S. and Europe, so why not us?” said Edhi. “We have vast experience in disaster management.”
The Edhi Foundation was started by Edhi’s Indian-born father, Abdul Sattar, in 1951 but gained prominence in Pakistan’s Asian flu epidemic of 1957, when Sattar, fondly remembered as an “angel of mercy,” set up 14 camps during the outbreak to provide free health care to the afflicted. He later expanded his relief operations in the United States, Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Canada and Japan.
Sattar went out of his way to provide financial aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and survivors of famine in Somalia and Ethiopia. A Sufi Muslim, Sattar made religious tolerance a cornerstone of his work, extending his benevolence beyond the boundaries of caste, religion and gender.
“My father was attacked by clerics and Pakistan’s militant far-right for his work,” says Edhi. “We carried his vision into our COVID relief work in Pakistan.”
When Sattar died in 2013, Pakistan held a period of national mourning, and he was given a state funeral — the first civilian in Pakistan’s history to receive the honor. Then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called him “the real manifestation of love for those who were socially vulnerable, impoverished, helpless and poor.”
When coronavirus infections spiked in Pakistan last year, Edhi’s volunteers went from village to village to teach people about safety protocols, ferried the infected to hospitals in foundation ambulances and performed the last rites of the dead when priests had bolted their doors.
“Faisal Bhai trained our volunteers at the Hindu cremation ground,” said Ram Nath Mishra, the chief priest of a Hindu temple in Karachi, using an endearment for Edhi. Mishra’s temple became a distribution center for COVID relief for the needy, and Edhi participated in Hindu rituals and generally bolstered community across the two faiths.
“He taught us how to stay safe while performing Hindu rituals like bathing the dead, placing the body on the funeral pyre and collecting the ashes,” said Mishra.
While the Indian government has welcomed medical aid from 14 countries in the form of oxygen concentrators, ventilators, rapid testing kits and life-saving drugs, it has chosen to overlook vital support from its neighbor.
Jatin Desai, a member of the civil society group Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, says the “contagion recognizes no borders or nationalities,” so India should accept the “groundswell of support from Pakistan” and let go of “the historical baggage of antagonism.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan recently expressed solidarity with India to “fight this global challenge confronting humanity.” Social media is also full of messages urging unity between India and Pakistan.
“As specialists in pre-hospital care, not only can they (The Edhi Foundation) save lives but also work with grassroots groups in India to spread religious tolerance and end animosity,” says Indian peace activist Tapan Bose.
Like his father, Edhi puts “conscious devotion” at the core of his work, eschewing religion that creates boundaries between people.
“My father was a very simple man,” he said. “He owned only two (sets) of clothes, never built a house and maintained an ascetic lifestyle so he could commit himself to humanity.” The one possession he valued was ambulances, Edhi pointed out, and he touched the lives of thousands of lower-class citizens, Hindus, non-Muslims and communities on the margins.
“Edhi’s father was a spiritually gifted man,” says a Muslim cleric based in Karachi. “For him, social welfare wasn’t about grabbing eyeballs but remaining focused on human suffering.”
Opposition leaders in India have petitioned the Modi-government for an “oxygen corridor” between India and Pakistan. A Congress leader from the state of Punjab recently wrote to Modi saying oxygen reserves in the country have dried up and that India should accept help to “save precious lives.”
“If the Indian government allows this cross-border initiative,” says Edhi, “not only can we arrest this death curve, but also show everyone that humanism trumps nationalism in crisis.”
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Priyadarshini Sen is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.