India’s health systems buckle under new COVID-19 wave

hospital ward disinfection
Chennai Trade Center, which has been turned into a COVID-19 quarantine ward, gets disinfected. Hospitals and health facilities in India are now running short of hospital beds for patients who have been infected by COVID-19. Copyright: The Times of India, (CC BY 3.0). This image has been cropped.

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  • India successfully managed the first surge last year
  • Then failed to heed the warnings as government went with business as usual
  • Aid poured in even as India must look within to fend of the second surge

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[NEW DELHI] India had every reason to hope for a repeat of last year’s March to May lockdown that halted COVID-19 in its tracks, even though it devastated the economy.

Despite the country’s huge population, the number of cases remained manageable while being showered with global attention as India became the main hub for vaccine production.

Then hubris set in.

What else could explain the failure to heed warnings issued in November by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare on COVID-19, including possible shortages of medical oxygen? The committee had also warned of grossly inadequate government hospital beds.

Meanwhile, the entire political system was geared around election rallies and the religious festival Kumbh Mela – a mass dip in the Ganges at Haridwar by devotees, from 11 March to 17 April.

Kumbh Mela in 2019. Image credit: Ninara (CC BY 2.0).

India for all its scientific manpower couldn’t foresee that there were new infective strains of COVID-19 spreading around, and there was a general sense that “If Modi is leading the rallies, he must be doing something right”.

Over the past year, Prime Minister Modi has grown a long beard, giving himself the aura of a mystic. And the crowds seem to love him for it. His last electoral rally in West Bengal in March was easily the biggest ever. But, he was persuaded to call off the second rally when the number of COVID-19 cases began to soar.

On 28 April, India recorded the highest single-day rise in coronavirus cases in the world with 360,960 new infections in a span of 24 hours, taking the country’s COVID-19 tally to nearly 18 million and total death toll to over 201,000. In April alone, India has reported more than 4 million new cases and over 25,000 deaths, according to the health ministry data.

A worrisome aspect pointed out in a recent press conference held by Vinod Paul, member of the Niti Aayog, India’s official public policy think tank, was that Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities along with peri-urban areas have recorded recent spikes in the spread of infection which would leave rural areas with weak health infrastructure vulnerable to collapse.

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As India struggles to contain the current surge, help has been arriving from the US, UK and other allies, with Washington asking its nearest bases to air-lift oxygen generators, concentrators, Remdesivir anti-viral drugs and raw materials for vaccines in the next 48 hours. UAE is sending a huge shipment of oxygen concentrators and Saudi Arabia large number of oxygen generators to India.

“The United States has identified sources of specific raw material urgently required for Indian manufacture of the Covishield vaccine that will immediately be made available for India,” said a statement issued by NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne on discussions between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and NSA Jake Sullivan.

The statement said the US is working “around the clock to deploy available resources and supplies”.

US President Joe Biden said in a tweet: “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need.”

While it is heartwarming to see support from other countries, still, the solutions must come from within particularly on mass vaccinations. So far, there’s no evidence of it as a mourning India faces an uncertain future.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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