It was just a month ago that I posted about how the numbers of covid-19 cases in so many countries in Asia and Africa were much lower than models predicted and India was cited as one example. That situation has changed dramatically since then. The average number of daily deaths in India had reached a low of less than 100 on March 8th but as of yesterday had rocketed up to about 2,500. This figure shows that it is now around Brazil’s daily death rate. That country’s leader Jair Bolsonaro is being blamed for his downplaying of the danger of covid-19 and ignoring expert advice on how to deal with it.
The situation is terrible, with hospitals unable to take in sick people and those who do make it in dying because of shortages of oxygen and ventilators, with doctors and nurses standing by helpless to do anything. Observers say that the true death figure is likely very much higher than the official one because the system is too stressed to keep track and many people are dying at home because there could not even get to the hospital. Crematoria are unable up with the demand even when they are working round the clock and some regions are thick with the smoke produced by the traditional open-air cremations. This sudden downturn has caused a lot of concern and other countries have started to help by providing various needed supplies, including oxygen and ventilators, though the Biden administration was slow in getting its aid off the ground.
So why has this happened? As with all aspects of the pandemic, cause and effect are hard to tease out but analysts are saying that the low rates in March resulted in people and the government dropping their guard when the rates went down, a cautionary reminder for countries all around the world.
Experts say this rapid increase shows that the second wave is spreading much faster across the country. Dr A Fathahudeen, who is part of Kerala state’s Covid taskforce, said the rise was not entirely unexpected given that India let its guard down when daily infections in January fell to fewer than 20,000 from a peak of over 90,000 in September.
Big religious gatherings, the reopening of most public places and crowded election rallies are being blamed for the uptick. Dr Fathahudeen said there were warning signs in February but “we did not get our act together”.
“I said in February that Covid had not gone anywhere and a tsunami would hit us if urgent actions were not taken. Sadly, a tsunami has indeed hit us now,” he added.
“A false sense of normalcy crept in and everybody, including people and officials, did not take measures to stop the second wave.”
As late as last week, prime minister Narendra Modi was holding huge rallies without masks and with people close together. The government had also allowed massive religious pilgrimages. Modi’s government is a Hindu nationalist one and he no doubt did not want to anger his base by restricting religious celebrations.
Another troubling possibility is that a new variant has emerged that is more transmissible and also better at circumventing the body’s immune system, making it more lethal. Indian scientists are trying to determine if that is the case.
Trevor Noah has a very good analysis of India’s situation, pointing out how the US has large stocks of unused vaccines because people here are not getting vaccinated at the required rates or not getting the second dose. I had not known that the US has also had a stockpile of 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that has not yet been approved for use in the US. Those are finally now being given to India.