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Med students watching grim COVID situation in India call on Canadian government to help

As India grapples with mass deaths and climbing COVID-19 case counts, medical students with ties to South Asia in Canada are urging the Canadian government to help poorer countries access vaccines that could serve as a lifeline.

India's official case count surpassed 20 million on Tuesday, and deaths are more than 220,000

COVID-19 is taking a terrible toll on India, with more than 3,600 official deaths recorded in one day. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

As India grapples with mass deaths and climbing COVID-19 case counts, medical students with ties to South Asia here are urging the Canadian government to help poorer countries access vaccines that could serve as a lifeline. 

The death toll in India has hit record highs this month, with more than 3,600 official deaths recorded in one day from the coronavirus, thought many fear the actual death toll could be much higher. 

"All of us who have loved ones and family in India, just seeing the devastation unfolding, it's really hard. It's truly reached another level in India," said Divya Santhanam, a second-year medical student at Western University, who has family in India. 

"As medical students, we're taught to advocate for the health of our patients. This will affect our patients, it will affect us all as Canadians, because we live in such a globalized world." 

Santhanam and two other medical students — along with many health advocates around the world — are urging the Canadian government to push for the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules that patent drugs such as COVID-19 vaccines and prevent them from being equitably distributed around the world. 

A 'moral catastrophe'

"With partnerships and shared technology, any facility in the world with the capacity will be able to produce medicines and vaccines, such as those in Latin America, Africa and Asia. This innovation should be a public good considering over $100 billion in taxpayers' money has funded these vaccines globally," the students write in their letter to the Canadian government. 

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"It is unjust that a corporate monopoly is expected to profit over $30 billion in revenue from these vaccines and is still not reaching the people that need it most. Intellectual property laws were not designed for a global pandemic."

India and South Africa have been pushing for the intellectual property waiver since October 2020. 

The students call what is happening in India, where many hospitals are forced to turn away patients because of lack of oxygen, a "moral catastrophe." 

The students hope to meet with senators later this week. 

Student Gopika Punchhi, who attends Western's medical school and is based in Windsor, Ont., said it's been difficult watching the unfolding situation in India, unable to help. 

"My mom and dad and sister are in Mumbai, and we're privileged enough that they're able to just stay inside," she said. "We don't know what this will mean for the future, because we are all so closely connected." 

Divya Santhanm is a Western University med student whose family is originally from Tamil Nadu, India, but with family in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi. (Supplied by Divya Santhanam)

Watching what is going on in India has been devastating, Santhanam said. 

"The situation is completely desperate," she said. 

"It's really important to act, not just because we have a personal connection there, but because it's the right thing to do." 

The students call on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign on to India and South Africa's proposal to waive intellectual property rights for vaccines; endorse access to technology so poor countries can scale up manufacturing of vaccines; and leverage Canada's diplomatic relations to get other countries to do the same and lift any bans on export of materials that are necessary to vaccine production.

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