The eyes of the world are focused on India, as the country experiences a brutal second wave of the Covid pandemic, with an average of 400,000 new daily infections and 3,000 daily deaths.
Public health experts say the numbers could be five to 10 times higher, as it is impossible to know what is happening in smaller towns and villages, which suffered huge gaps in health care even before the current crisis. Hospitals have run out of beds, therapeutics, personal protective equipment, and most critically, supplies of oxygen.
“Every encounter has started to feel like a game of Russian Roulette. Every time you go out, you feel like this this might be the time you bring the virus home,” said Kolkata-based journalist and author Sandip Roy.
Speaking at a special Ethnic Media Services briefing May 5 about India’s Covid crisis, currently the worst in the world, Roy said social media in India is awash with people desperately searching for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. An acquaintance lost her uncle, who died in the back of a taxi as he roamed through town, looking for an available hospital bed.
“This second wave is worse than a tsunami. It is like a nuclear bomb,” said Dr. Jalil Parkar, one of India’s leading pulmonologists who is affiliated with Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai. His city, the financial hub of India, has sufficient quantities of oxygen and therapeutics, but supplies have completely run out in satellite cities and smaller towns, said Parkar.
The pulmonologist attributed India’s brutal second wave to complacency, as India’s residents became tired of shelter-in-place orders and began to step out. The country also hosted the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival occuring every 12 years, in which more than 50 million people descended on the small town of Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Huge political rallies for state elections were also held in March and April.
Parkar and his wife both underwent severe bouts of Covid, but survived.
Infection rates are expected to peak to about 800,000 per day before they drop down. University of Michigan epidemiologist Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee predicts in a recent study that for one known Covid-19 case in India, there are likely to be 10 to 20 undetected cases.
Currently, only 26 million of India’s 1.2 billion population are fully vaccinated. India opened up vaccinations May 1 to people ages 18-44, prompting an outcry from health experts who noted that vulnerable elderly people have not yet been able to get vaccinated. The country manufactures two vaccines: Covishield — the AstraZeneca vaccine — and Covaxin, India’s home-grown vaccine.
Dr. Rosemarie De Souza, a general care physician who serves in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Mumbai’s Nair Hospital, said at the briefing that she has observed a curious phenomenon. In the first wave of the pandemic last year, which India largely kept under control, fatal victims were largely older people with underlying factors which put them at greater risk of dying from COVID.
But in this second wave, De Souza is seeing much younger patients dying, with no pre-existing comorbidities. She attributed this fatal trend to India’s double mutant variant, B.1.617, which is far more contagious and lethal than its predecessors.
“The second wave is more lethal and more infectious because of the mutation of the virus. If vaccination is given to most people, then infection rates and deaths will definitely decrease,” she said.
Her husband, Dr. Chris De Souza, an ENT Head and Neck Surgeon,at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, said patients suffering other diseases, including cancer, are holding off on critical procedures for fear of getting infected at the hospital, said De Souza.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, spoke of a $100 million aid package that the U.S. has started shipping to India, which includes oxygen cylinders and concentrators, therapeutics, personal protective equipment, and other critical supplies. The U.S. has also agreed to release 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, though 50 million have yet to be manufactured.
“We need to get vaccines on the streets and oxygen and ventilators, not a month from now, but tomorrow,” stated Warner at the EMS press briefing, noting that the supplies are being channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development in partnership with the Government of India. Aid is also being channeled through non-profit organizations.
Warner, along with Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken May 5, asking him to ramp up aid to India. Last month, Warner and Cornyn wrote to President Joe Biden to speed up emergency Covid aid to India. U.S. supplies started arriving in India on April 29.