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OP-ED: India in the inferno

  • Published at 01:25 am April 23rd, 2021
Mourners at a funeral in New Delhi, wearing full PPE
Mourners at a funeral in New Delhi, wearing full PPE REUTERS

A story of administrative incompetence and unconscionable lack of preparation

Every day that passes, another horrific set of new lows are being plumbed in India, as the country continues to be blasted by the worst and most devastating Covid-19 surge that any country has experienced throughout the global pandemic. 

On Thursday, India reported 314,835 new infections in 24 hours -- the new world record -- but unlike other contenders (the US did come close at its own peak) it is believed that as many as 10 times that number of cases are going unreported and undetected. 

The situation is already well past breaking point. As John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times pointed out on Twitter, it has fed into a crisis in “hospitals beyond what we’ve seen anywhere else in the world over the whole pandemic. ICUs are twice as full in Nagpur as they ever got in Lombardy last March. Mumbai’s ICU’s are more full than Liège was in Belgium’s brutal peak.”

The carnage has spilled over from massively overstretched hospitals to devastated supply chains, and right into the streets, where many people are dying while waiting fruitlessly for help to arrive. Earlier this week, the journalist Vinay Srivastava anxiously tweeted: “My oxygen has reduced to 52. Nobody at the hospital lab, or the doctor is picking the phone.” 

Then, in response to someone urging him not to give up: “How long should I keep the faith? Now my oxygen level is 50, and the guard at the Balrampur hospital is not letting me enter.” His last question to the world before he perished was: “Now my oxygen is 31 when some (one) will come?”

Srivastava died without getting to see a doctor in Lucknow, but the same disastrous scenario is playing out in dozens of big and small cities around India. Hospitals are packed beyond capacity, doctors and nurses are run off their feet like never before, and there are dangerous shortages of critical medicines as well as oxygen. Even more unimaginable, the world’s largest vaccine producer is failing to secure what is required to service its own needs, with devastating spill-over implications for every other country that is relying on its shipments.

Writing in the New York Times, the economist and epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan (he is the director of the Washington-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy) pointed out: “India’s rapid slide into this unprecedented crisis is a direct result of complacency and lack of preparation by the government.”

Laxminarayan says: “Mass political, religious, and sporting events, which are extensively covered by the Indian media, sent mixed messages about the seriousness of the pandemic. Popular impatience to get back to earlier lives made things worse. Indians started mixing widely and playing down the threat also because there is an unfounded sense among a large number of Indians that exposure to pollution and microbes had endowed them with superior immunity. It was inevitable the virus would roar back.”

Another factor in why India is suffering as badly as it is now -- with potentially grave consequences for the rest of South Asia, and then the world -- is the strong likelihood that we are witnessing the emergence of especially aggressive and overpowering variants of the coronavirus. 

The “double mutant” version that has been showing up all over India recently is known for evading RT-PCR tests -- hitherto considered the best testing regimen in the world’s arsenal. In hotbeds like Maharashtra, it has been responsible for the majority of new cases. 

But on Wednesday this week, the scientist Vinod Scaria (he is with the Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) warned that yet another -- this time “triple mutant” -- worrisome variant has surfaced in West Bengal. It is made up of three different strains combined, and possesses the likelihood of even greater transmissibility.

There’s ample anecdotal evidence already that these new strains of Covid-19 strike much more lethally than anything we have experienced in the past year: Younger victims, rapid deterioration, exponentially greater need for oxygen support, reinfection despite vaccine protection. 

It is a desperate scenario, compounded by administrative incompetence, and an unconscionable lack of collective preparation.

In his The New York Times opinion piece, Laxminarayan asked: “Can India get out of the current situation?” Then he answered his own question. “India no longer has the option of another national lockdown because of the crushing effect on the economy, but more local and state lockdowns are likely. Indians will have to self-protect, and the Indian government needs to urgently send out consistent messages about the seriousness of the disease.”

He concluded: “The Indian government needs to emphasize the mandatory use of masks and quickly move to ban all mass gatherings. Without consistent messaging and a science-led approach from the government, India risks giving back the hard-won gains made through the nationwide lockdown a year ago.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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