India Is Experiencing A Devastating Wave Of Covid-19: Impact To Reverberate Around The World
In India, more than 332,000 Covid-19 infections were reported today, along with approximately 2,250 deaths. Both figures shattered previous daily records for the country. India has a nearly vertical coronavirus case growth curve. Similarly, the daily reported deaths curve’s slope is practically vertical. The official daily death toll is probably a significant underestimate. Moreover, soaring test positivity suggests the case count is also vastly underestimated.
Maharashtra, India’s second most populous and wealthiest (per capita) state, tops the list of most affected states in the country.
A fragile and fragmented healthcare system is buckling. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and have had to turn away scores of patients. There aren’t enough beds. There is an acute need for all kinds of medical supplies. Hospitals in the Mumbai and Delhi regions are running short on oxygen. In a video that has gone viral, a Mumbai physician, Dr. Trupti Gilada, describes the severity of the current crisis, and provides fellow citizens guidance on how to prevent contracting coronavirus as well as advice on what to do in case one falls ill.
Until this latest surge, the prevailing thought was that given India’s high population density it had done a remarkable job curbing the spread of Covid-19 and keeping the death rate comparatively low. But as Professor Madhu Pai, Research Chair of Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University, explains, India has become a Covid-19 cautionary tale for the whole world. Government officials declared victory over Covid-19 too soon. In mid February Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that India’s “successful fight against Covid-19 is inspiring the entire world.” Authorities lifted most lockdown restrictions designed to stem the spread of the virus. Poor public health messaging ensued and people dropped their guard, many becoming non-compliant with masking and social distancing protocols. Large mass gatherings took place, including election rallies and religious festivals.
Also, despite having a considerable capacity for vaccine output – the Serum Institute of India is after all the world’s biggest vaccine maker – India ranks far behind China, as well as almost all European nations and the U.S. in terms of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people.
Antibody tests taken several months ago indicated that in certain areas of India, such as Delhi, as many as 50% of the population had been exposed to the novel coronavirus. Yet, one of the world’s worst Covid-19 spikes on record is currently taking place in precisely those areas.
How much of a role the new Covid-19 variants play is uncertain. Specifically, questions have been raised around the B.1.617 variant, which was first detected in India in October 2020. The B.1.617 variant carries two mutations; E484Q and L452R. Both mutations may help the virus evade antibodies in the immune system, and as a result become partially resistant to one or more vaccines. This said, it’s highly unlikely the mutations would make vaccines completely ineffective.
Genome sequencing data suggests evidence of the “double mutant” B.1.617 in more than 60% of samples in Maharashtra. However, it’s still not determined the degree to which this new variant is driving the current surge. Scientists have also not ascertained this variant’s virulence, and whether it makes people more vulnerable to reinfection, more infectious, and more resistant to vaccines. There simply hasn’t been enough data sampling. In lieu of more evidence, the B.1.617 variant retains its “variant of interest” denotation rather than “variant of concern.”
Thus far the world’s reaction to the catastrophe unfolding in India has been muted. A number of Western countries have instituted travel bans, barring flights from India. But, besides offering words to express concern, Western leaders haven’t put forward constructive plans to help address the Indian crisis at hand. Surely, in short order much can be done to deal with India’s acute needs. For one thing, the U.S. could lift the embargo of raw material exports that supply India’s vaccine manufacturers. In addition, the U.S. is currently hoarding vaccines. For example, it has an inventory of at least 35 million doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine which it will likely never use. And, the U.S. and other countries could airlift personal protective equipment, oxygen, ventilators, Covid-19 treatments, and even trained personnel to various hot spots.
The Covid-19 emergency in India isn’t merely a humanitarian crisis of potentially monumental proportions. It also has negative repercussions for global economic growth, international reopening plans, and supply chains for a wide variety of products, including vaccines. India is the world’s 6th largest economy; the second largest emerging market, behind China. It is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines. Yet now, it cannot export vaccines to other nations in need. India’s desperate circumstances consequently have a snowball effect on vaccination efforts in other nations.
Worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic is in a rapidly ascendant phase in a number of countries, including India. Clearly, the pandemic is far from over. Given the world’s interdependence, the motto, no one is safe until we are all safe, applies.