Hospitals in India can no longer handle the influx of covid patients, people are dying without any treatment, and therefore the end of the new wave of COVID19 is nowhere in sight. But what’s behind the recent explosion of infections and deaths among the Indians?
First some figures: in recent weeks India has broken one record after another: the number of daily infections rose to over 400,000 in early May. Which resulted in an exceedingly daily death toll of over 4,000. Meanwhile, those numbers have fallen somewhat to 340,000 and nearly 3,900 respectively. Still impressive, especially once you examine the totals: India has had some 23 million registered covid infections and 250,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. All experts assume that the figures are in reality a lot higher, up to a quarter of a billion infections.
Mild first wave
Last year India gave the impression to have more or less escaped the deadly virus. After the pandemic started in 2020, a strict lockdown was declared that lasted from March to June. As a result, the number of officially registered infections in this period was limited to roughly half a million. This is peanuts for a country like India with its 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Without the lockdown, the spread of COVID-19 increased with the first corona wave peaking in September. By the end of the year, the number of infections officially reached 10 million. Still manageable, especially compared to the predictions from doom scenarios that previously circulated about densely populated India.
A perfect storm
After the mild first wave last year the situation changed to a humanitarian catastrophe this spring. However, per high-ranking politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi within the lead, the worst was over. But the victory was crowded too soon. After all, India had to cater to a new mutation of the coronavirus, officially called B.1.617, but colloquially referred to as the “Indian variant”.
The mutation appears to be more contagious than other variants and is mentioned by the World Health Organization as a matter of concern. Although it’s not clear whether an infected person will also become sicker. The emergence of the new variant after the winter undoubtedly contributed to a faster spread of COVID-19 in India.
But far more important to the exponential covid growth was the nonchalance that had taken root in Indian society since the start of this year. The strict measures from the first half of 2020 had long been forgotten. And keeping your distance or wearing mouth masks hardly appeared. On the contrary, more and more Indians took part in mass rallies.
Masses of people
This happened during elections in several states, such as West Bengal and Assam. Thousands of supporters of local and national politicians showed up for meetings in countless places in March and April. Prime Minister Modi, who seems like a fish in water when he can address a crowd, thought it was all fine. Even though it absolutely was not. Until the last half of April that the number of participants in political rallies was limited to 500, after all.
All of that was irrelevant compared to the Kumbh Mela festival, a spiritual Hindu festival that lasts six weeks. It took place this year from April 1 in the northern city of Haridwar. Nearly 10 million believers took part, the most festive part of which was a dip within the sacred Ganges River. The celebrants came from all over the country. Earlier discussed during this article. there have been hardly any restrictions on COVID-19. Kumbh Mela can therefore without any doubt be labelled as a “super diffuser”.
An additional problem for the covid situation in India that got out of hand is that the vaccination campaign is not functioning properly. Currently, according to the authoritative Johns Hopkins University, some 170 million Indians are vaccinated, 35 million of whom have also received a second shot (13% and 2.5% of the population respectively).
Not just a problem for India
This is particularly painful in a country that’s the world’s largest vaccine producer. Because of the plight, the Indian government recently decided to temporarily stop the export of covid vaccines. This export ban is particularly a problem for African countries, which are largely dependent on the COVAX program. the World Health Organization wants to assist poorer countries to vaccinate their population against the coronavirus.
The second wave continues to create dramatic scenes in Indian hospitals. There are too few beds to address the influx of new covid patients. Relatives of sick people beg hospital workers to provide their loved ones with a place, usually in vain. Oxygen bottles are being lugged around because many hospitals are scuffling with oxygen shortages and therefore the black marketplace for O2 is rampant.
The Covid crisis in India could be a global problem. The longer the second wave lasts and the more infections there are, the greater the prospect of new, possibly even more dangerous, mutations of the coronavirus. These eventually also find their way abroad. This Indian variant has reached the rest of the planet. All the more worry for virologists from all over the globe.