The second most populous country in the world is dealing with a pandemic nightmare that is beyond the ken of understanding for those who live in the western world with a modern health care system. More than 400,000 new infections were reported on Saturday in India with another 396,000 infections on Sunday. The government reports more than 3,500 deaths on Saturday — a figure laughably and tragically wrong.
In fact, observers all agree that the actual number is much, much higher.
With Covid-19 patients unable to get into hospitals, many have been dying at home, often without ever getting tested. Meanwhile, state governments and local authorities stand accused of rampant miscounting, covering up and obfuscating the true death toll in their states. Over the past month, in the Karnataka city of Bangalore – where case numbers are among the fastest rising in the country – the figure for Covid-related deaths registered in crematoriums was twice the official death toll.
It’s surreal the way that authorities are downplaying and even denying the crisis. The government in the state of Uttar Pradesh is still insisting India has the lowest mortality rate in the world despite the evidence in front of him. Prime Minister Narendra Modi still refuses to lock down the country while making little effort to enforce the restrictions he’s already put in place.
The public pleas by families and loved ones for oxygen are tragic.
In India, distressing images of families begging for hospital beds and life-saving supplies have been emerging for more than 10 days, while morgues and crematoriums remain overwhelmed.
Twelve people died on Saturday at Delhi’s Batra Hospital after it ran out of oxygen – for the second time in a week.
The Times of India newspaper reported 16 deaths in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh due to oxygen shortages in two hospitals, and six in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon.
To add to the nightmare, hospitals are catching fire.
The country’s health system — fragile and underfunded even in normal times — is showing signs of strain. The fire in Bharuch, in Gujarat State, came after several recent accidents in Indian hospitals that have claimed the lives of Covid-19 patients.
A separate fire this week killed four people at a hospital in Surat, another city in Gujarat. At least 22 Covid-19 patients died at a hospital a few days earlier in the neighboring state of Maharashtra when a leak cut off their oxygen supply. And two days later, a fire at another hospital in Maharashtra left at least 13 Covid-19 patients dead.
Less than 2 percent of India’s 940 million people have been vaccinated despite the government declaring that all adults are now eligible to be vaccinated. India has nowhere near the number of doses to vaccinate even the most vulnerable. The U.S. and western Europe are rushing as many doses as they can spare as well as oxygen, PPE, and other supplies in short supply.
But that aid isn’t expected to start making a difference for a week or 10 days. Meanwhile, India’s dire situation is getting worse.
India’s Covid nightmare should begin to concern all of us. In an outbreak like this, human beings become a petri dish for the virus. Variants of the virus can be created in situations like this — variants that may be resistant to current vaccines.
As long as vaccines are in short supply and the virus is running rampant, experts warn that dangerous variants will evolve, spread and possibly evade vaccines. That could eventually pose a threat even for countries like the United States, where 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said that the only way to break the cycle is to ensure countries like India get enough vaccines.
“In order to stop this pandemic, we have to vaccinate the whole world,” Dr. Diamond said. “There will be new waves of infection over and over again unless we vaccinate at a global scale.”
According to some experts, India’s true death toll from Covid is at least 3 times higher. Getting the right number is far less important than getting oxygen and medical supplies to people lying in hospitals waiting to die.