India Continues to Set Global Records in COVID-19 Cases

Juliet Nangini
Staff Writer

Every four minutes, someone dies from COVID-19 in Delhi, India. Smoke from mass cremation sites covered the skies in a thick layer, as seen in CNN’s drone footage. On Friday, April 30, the country continued its streak of diagnosing over 300,000 new cases in a single day, the ninth consecutive day with over 200,000 total deaths. There is increasing evidence, however, that the death toll may be five to ten times higher than reported, partly due to the country’s large population of nearly 1.4 billion people. India faces a lack of vaccines, hospital beds, vaccines, and oxygen supplies; even crematoriums are struggling to keep up with the pandemic.

Despite warnings of the potential for a second wave of the pandemic following last September’s  wave and reports of new variants, the country let its guard down. According to National Geographic, the Indian government’s decision to send resources to other countries was deemed rational, as Harsh Vardhan, the country’s health minister and physician, assumed the country was in the “endgame” of the pandemic. National Geographic also reports that India exported more than 190 million vaccine doses, in addition to a drastic 734 percent increase of oxygen exports. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ruled out another national lockdown, telling states to “Try as much as possible to protect yourselves from lockdown [and] focus on micro-containment zones,” NPR reports.

Now, the country is facing a significant shortage of resources as families of patients rush from hospital to hospital in search of beds and oxygen. NPR warns that, as a result of the crippling health care system, law and order may also be disrupted , as the police force is guarding oxygen tanks, rampant vaccine theft is on the rise, and people are collecting oxygen tanks at home. Many have been turning to the black market for resources. For example,  Ajay Gupta spent 630,000 rupees ($8,500) on the drug, Remdesivir, for his brother, The Guardian reports.

Experts attribute the second wave to the United Kingdom’s B.1.1.7 variant and, possibly, the homegrown B.1.617 variant that originated in Maharashtra. The latter is also believed to have given rise to the surges in Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of India’s neighboring states. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) conducted a study which found that India’s daily COVID-19 cases are doubled compared to the previous surge, with predictions of a death toll reaching as high as 665,000 by August 2021. The IHME also found that vaccines are less effective against the variants. However, an experiment at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a research institute in Hyderabad, found that the homegrown strand was not resistant against Covishield, an Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India, continues National Geographic. However, despite being home to the world’s biggest vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India, India has closed 94 vaccine centers due to a lack of supply, NBC reports. The country has thus far administered around 150 million doses.

Along with new variants, human behavior has also contributed to second waves around the world. In India, many gathered for the religious event ‘Kumbh Mela’ and  pilgrimaged for the ritual dip in the river Ganges in the Indian state of Uttarakhand on April 1. According to National Geographic, cases in the region rose from a staggering 30 to 60 cases per day in February to over 2,000 this month. In addition to religious festivities, assembly elections are currently underway in India, which have contributed to a high number of cases through rallies and electioneering.

Meanwhile, crematorium staff have been working almost incessantly, enduring an abundance of grief and risk as overrun hospitals send corpses without protection, leaving staff members exposed to the virus. The head of Ghazipur crematorium, Sunil Kumar Sharma, tells The Guardian, “I am so tired, and my soul feels broken by what is happening. People are now dumping the bodies and running away, so we have to perform the last rites instead, so these bodies still have some dignity.”

Though prevention is no longer feasible against a second wave, containment is key, National Geographic adds. The IHME found that the daily deaths will peak on May 10, with the possibility of reducing deaths by 70,000 through the enforcement of masks. Further reductions are also possible if vaccine eligibility is expanded.

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