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'White House has heard us'

By ABHIJIT MASIH
Last updated on: May 28, 2021 10:06 IST
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'They are starting to move more quickly and we would just like to continue to see bold action being taken.'

IMAGE: A lady, who came to receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, stands in front of a closed gate at a vaccination centre, which was closed due to unavailability of the vaccine, in Mumbai. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

The son of Indian immigrants who made Pennsylvania's coal country home, Neil Makhija is a public interest attorney and an educator who teaches election law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In 2016, he was the Democratic nominee for the 122nd District of the Pennsylvania State House.

A graduate of the Harvard Law School and Sarah Lawrence College, Neil, below, is the executive director of The Indian American IMPACT Project, a not-for-profit organization which is calling on the White House to act swiftly to send surplus vaccines to India.

"We have a surplus of millions of vaccines that the US could be sending abroad every day. We are asking the White House to send some of those to India because India is obviously undergoing the worst crisis that we have ever seen during the pandemic," Neil Makhija tells Rediff.com US Contributor Abhijit Masih.

 

Tell us about your organization, the Indian American IMPACT Project.

The Indian American IMPACT is actually three different entities -- the Indian American IMPACT Project, the Indian American IMPACT and the IMPACT Fund.

IMPACT Project is a research and education arm that also helps train and does non-partisan work in regard to helping our community engage in public service.

IMPACT is an advocacy group that supports Indian Americans.

IMPACT Fund supports (Indian American) candidates and elections.

We were founded in 2016 and we brought together, in the two years following, 500 leaders from around the country who are Indian Americans and talk about how we can increase our representation in government and did politics in the United States.

When we first started, there was only one member of Congress. Now there are four.

There were only about 12 collective officials nationwide at the state legislative level, now there are 36.

So we really been focused on increasing our representation. Now since we have some people in power we are focused on guiding government and helping push for priorities for our community and on things that we care about.

How successful were you in getting Indian Americans elected to office in the 2020 elections?

We helped swing elections in support of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in places like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.

We made the difference and we helped give President Biden a majority in the US senate, in the Georgia run-offs.

Basically, the Indian American community is among the fastest growing in the United States and as a group we are playing an increasingly important role in politics.

IMAGE: Notices about the shortage of COVID-19 vaccine seen outside a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Mumbai. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

What is the #SendIndiaVaccines project that you are promoting? How will this coalition of Indian American organizations work to achieve this?

The US is well on its way to vaccinating 70% of adults and we are opening it now to children.

Besides, we have a surplus of millions of vaccines that we could be sending abroad every day.

So we are asking the White House to send some of those to India because India is obviously undergoing the worst crisis that we have ever seen during the pandemic.

India is also a leading producer of vaccines, so we want to make sure that we keep the supply of vaccines going worldwide, by making sure that India is in a place where they can continue exporting, like what they did before.

So this is really something that is important for the whole world. It affects the whole world and we think that our community of Indian Americans really understands this better than anyone because we are paying so close an attention.

We just need to make sure that those in power are also paying close attention.

And I think they have heard us, the White House has heard us.

And now they are starting to move more quickly and we would just like to continue to see bold action being taken.

Are you going to push for a specific vaccine or whichever is in surplus?

AstraZeneca, to start with, because it's right there, but then also the Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and then everything. We have a surplus of 2 million vaccines everyday.

Who are the celebrities and influencers who are endorsing this campaign for the targeted community outreach?

You will find out soon. We had a number of folks who signed our petition who are celebrities and influencers like the cast members of Mindy Kaling's show on Netflix, Never Have I Ever.

IMAGE: People wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Kolkata. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Have you achieved any success in reaching out to Vice President Harris for this campaign?

For this campaign, we have had initial conversations with people in the White House.

Yes, members of Congress have talked to the Vice President, but I have not talked to her yet.

When you say members of Congress, you mean Indian American members of Congress?

Congressman Ami Bera, from California's 7th Congressional District, met with her (US Vice President Kamala Harris) a few weeks ago.

What about the Congressional Caucus on Indian Americans? Have its members committed to the campaign?

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who represents the 8th District of Illinois, is introducing a bill to support $19 billion to stop COVID-19 and to put in support for global efforts.

So that is something that we're working on.

A few others, Congresswoman Pramila Jaypal, representing the 7th District of Washington,is involved as well. She is working on a significant bill and letter to support legislation.

IMAGE: A healthcare worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a government-run hospital in Kolkata. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

India's External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar is in Washington precisely to get more vaccines for India and possibly a treaty for India and the US to produce more vaccines. What is your assessment of this mission?

It's interesting. Let us see what he says.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have refused to deal with sta overnments, who have been given the latitude by India's government to obtain vaccines on their own.
How can your campaign help Indian states who need vaccines desperately?

Look, it doesn't matter how they do it.

Either they give directly or India buys from the pharma company. Whatever works. We are at this point in a global crisis where we can't let these things get in the way.

The same thing is with the issue on intellectual property.

We can't let these issues get in the way of addressing the immediate crisis because millions of people are dying.

What's your take on the international pharma companies' reservations on intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines?

I think it will be outrageous if any company tried to sue for copyright and trademark infringement in a circumstance where millions of people are dying. They have already profited billions from this product.

IMAGE: People wait to receive vaccine outside a vaccination centre in Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

How many vaccines are you hoping that the US will give India through this campaign and in what time frame?

Potentially, half of the surplus vaccines is a reasonable goal since half of the new cases are in India and it really makes sense.

You know, I would give some discretion, but I think something small like a million is really nothing.

It has to be proportional to the scale of the crisis.

And these vaccines can apparently start being sent almost immediately.

Just knowing, that what we are manufacturing is already a surplus.

It should be as soon as possible. I think the end of next month is certainly too long.

IMAGE: IMPACT's petition urging US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to send surplus vaccines to India. Photograph: Kind courtesy iaimpact.org

Do you have a duration in mind for this campaign? How long are you going to sustain the push?

I think the coming days and weeks will make the biggest difference .

Of late, there have been many incidents of assault on Asian Americans. Do you worry about a possible backlash that the Indian American community might face because of the viral strain referred to by some as the 'Indian Virus' and also, if the White House gives the vaccines to India at a time when millions of Americans are still to be vaccinated?

Yeah, I think absolutely. It happened to Asian Americans.

We have seen some messages online indicating that in New Jersey people are afraid of Indian Americans.

So any time there is a crisis, I think there are moments where racism and discrimination rears its ugly head. We always need to be vigilant about that and to make sure that we discuss these issues factually.

The real problem is not the fact that India is the place where the variant was first identified, the real problems is that we don't have a world that has the same access to the vaccines as we do have here in the US. So that's what we need to focus on.

Do you see the Biden administration pushing Pfizer and Moderna to set up contract manufacturing or voluntary licensing arrangements with India for the duration of the crisis? As Congressman Ro Khanna advocated in his recent Foreign Affairs column.

Well, what we need to do is for Congress to appropriate $25 billion. And Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna and Pramila Jaypal are working to introduce this bill.

They need to appropriate the money that it's going to cost to get everyone in the world vaccinated.

We need tech transfer and we need the money to have the vaccines pretty much reach everywhere.

The crisis is costing us 10 trillion dollars if no one is vaccinated and it will only cost 25 billion dollars to get everyone vaccinated.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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