For the Indian diaspora living in Japan, the end of April was heavy with news of loved ones in India infected with COVID-19, feeling helpless thousands of miles away from home as India’s health system collapsed in a second wave of the pandemic.

Wanting to help, Indian communities from around the world have been sending oxygen concentrators — the need of the hour — to India, through various channels. But when Indians in Japan tried to do the same, they faced several challenges, due to relatively fewer business channels, and the fact that doing such a thing was perhaps unprecedented.

Though the Japanese government has provided 800 ventilators and 800 oxygen concentrators to India as emergency aid, Indian residents were also trying to do the same on an individual basis. They first tried to ship oxygen concentrators from Japan without success, and then from Indonesia, which resulted in delays, and finally from within India with success, frustrating those desperate to help out their family and friends back home.

Natasha Gupta, who lives in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, was one of them. Along with several of her friends and acquaintances in Japan, Gupta found oxygen concentrators on Amazon Japan and on Rakuten with a high price tag — ¥75,000 for one oxygen concentrator of 9 liters; ¥50,000 for 6 liters.

But the clock was ticking.

“We wanted to collectively buy them and have them delivered to our addresses here. We were hoping to ship them on an Air India flight, with the help of the Indian Embassy. But Amazon would deliver only by May 10, which would be too late,” said Gupta, who works at a pharmaceutical company.

Gupta reached out to members of the Indian diaspora on Facebook on April 29. Many people responded to her, wanting to send oxygen concentrators to their families, or to the smaller towns and villages of their origin, where the healthcare facilities are worse than in urban areas. Others offered donations to help purchase them.

But she faced an unexpected challenge when she reached out to manufacturers of medical devices directly: the Golden Week holidays.

A heath worker prepares to supply free oxygen for a coronavirus patient in Uttar Pradesh, India on May 11. | BLOOMBERG
A health worker prepares to supply free oxygen for a coronavirus patient in Uttar Pradesh, India on May 11. | BLOOMBERG

Almost all of the firms were unreachable; the few that could be contacted said that they did not sell to individuals, only to hospitals and through other B2B channels.

“I explained to them that I was not buying these myself, but that we — a group of volunteers — wished to buy oxygen concentrators in bulk, to address the grave situation in India,” Gupta said. “But I have been here long enough to understand that our persuasion was of no use; it is shōganai (it can’t be helped), since there is no established system without consent of top management. So we had to quickly move to another plan.”

There were oxygen concentrators available on electronics retailer Yamada Denki’s online store and Gupta reserved 20 units, aiming to send them to India by a once-weekly Air India flight, on May 3. The group had decided not to use Japan’s All Nippon Airways, because, Gupta said, apart from being expensive, it wouldn’t make such an accommodation of sending a shipment even on humanitarian grounds.

Even though the seller from Yamada Denki offered to ship them the same day, there was another problem: the oxygen concentrators had a voltage of 110V, whereas the electric supply in India is 220V. Sending transformers along would have complicated the process for those in emergency situations.

By then, it was already past May 3; the Air India flight had been missed, and the units were no longer available from Yamada Denki. Gupta doubted the veracity of the business, or if the seller even wanted to sell to the group, even though she assured she would pay the high price listed, of ¥90,000 for a 9-liter, 220V unit.

With Gupta’s attempt seemingly reaching to a dead end, another Indian resident, Abhishek Sali, an IT professional who has been living in Japan for nearly two decades, came up with another plan. Sali reached out to a friend — a Japanese trader with ties across Southeast Asia — who said his partner in Indonesia could procure the oxygen concentrators there and send them to India.

Sali was able to gather ¥900,000 in donations from various Indian community-based and professional networks in Japan, and confirmed 50 units.

“Even though my friend’s business partner in Indonesia had never traded with India before, they realized the urgency of the situation,” Sali said. He found 7-liter oxygen concentrators priced at an equivalent of ¥55,000 each, giving an oxygen concentration of 93%, which would work well for patients with mild symptoms.

However, there were no direct flights from Indonesia to India. At the time of writing, this channel was also temporarily on hold since the shipping price was found to be too high. Sali has begun to reach out to networks within the merchant navy instead, from Indonesia.

People wait in New Delhi for oxygen cylinders to be refilled on May 3. | ATUL LOKE / THE NEW YORK TIMES
People wait in New Delhi for oxygen cylinders to be refilled on May 3. | ATUL LOKE / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Sali hopes that his connection with other Japanese businesses that have partners in China will lead to the procuring of such units and having them sent directly to India. “I trust my Japanese network the most, and hence trust when they connect me to their partners in China.”

The original plan, Gupta and Sali confirmed, was to have the 50 units delivered to Sewa International, which they said was sourcing emergency supplies across the globe.

“We wanted to keep track of where the units were being delivered; donors had requested a set number of units to be delivered to specific locations,” said Gupta, adding that several donors and many other Indians were associated with Sewa International.

Sewa International is an affiliate of the controversial right-wing Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and has received $150,621 in COVID-19 relief from the United States’ Small Business Administration (SBA), a federal agency. Sewa International funds several RSS-run projects across India and mobilizes the Hindu diaspora.

With the Indonesia procurement facing delays, another group of Indian residents opted to try the most concrete option — purchasing from suppliers in India.

Swati Singh, a resident of Tokyo’s Kamata district, and her friends reached out to suppliers within India, to bypass this convoluted process and ensure efficiency of quick delivery of the oxygen concentrators to different groups across India. Money was raised from 20 people in Japan, and the decision was made swiftly to purchase five units at an equivalent price of ¥90,000. These oxygen concentrators were distributed to different NGOs, coordinating associations and makeshift hospitals. Singh could not divulge further details about the recipients; all attempts to connect with them directly were in vain.

Singh is now trying to connect with Japanese nationals living in India, and develop a formal organization, to ensure an easier flow of communication with manufacturers in Japan.

“Even if we have funds, the manufacturers here wouldn’t sell these life-saving tools to us. We realized that we need to develop the trust factor, to enable (us to) procure these items,” Singh said.

Apart from the pause due to the Golden Week holidays, both Gupta and Sali said that all the hassle and heartache could have been avoided only if Japanese companies were selling to India, or if they were at least willing to make an exception given the circumstances — something that was possible with the businessperson in Indonesia.

“Some openness in the procurement and sales process would have been immensely helpful during these crisis times,” Sali said.

A relative takes care of a coronavirus patient receiving free oxygen in Uttar Pradesh, India, on May 11. | BLOOMBERG
A relative takes care of a coronavirus patient receiving free oxygen in Uttar Pradesh, India, on May 11. | BLOOMBERG

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.