Coronavirus infections and deaths are mounting with alarming speed in India with a top expert warning that the coming weeks in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people will be “horrible”.
India’s official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million on 4 May, nearly doubling in the past three months, while deaths officially passed 220,000.
Staggering as those numbers are, the true figures are believed to be far higher, the undercount an apparent reflection of the troubles in the healthcare system. The country has witnessed scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky.
Infections have surged in India since February in a disastrous turn blamed on more contagious variants of the virus as well as government decisions to allow massive crowds to gather for Hindu religious festivals and political rallies before state elections.
India’s top health official Rajesh Bhushan refused to speculate last month as to why authorities were not better prepared. But the cost is clear: people are dying because of shortages of bottled oxygen and hospital beds or because they couldn’t get a coronavirus test.
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India’s official average of newly confirmed cases per day has soared from over 65,000 on 1 April to about 370,000, and deaths per day have officially gone from over 300 to more than 3,000.
On 4 May, the health ministry reported 357,229 new cases in the past 24 hours and 3,449 deaths.
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in the US, said he is concerned that the Indian policymakers he’s been in contact with believe things will improve in the next few days.
I’ve been trying to say to them, ‘If everything goes very well, things will be horrible for the next several weeks. And it may be much longer’.
Dr Jha said the focus needs to be on “classic” public health measures: targeted shutdowns, more testing, universal mask-wearing, and avoiding large gatherings.
The death and infection figures are considered unreliable because testing is patchy and reporting incomplete. Municipal records for 2 May show 1,680 dead in the Indian capital were treated according to the procedures for handling the bodies of those infected with coronavirus. But in the same 24-hour period, only 407 deaths were added to the official toll from New Delhi.
The deaths reflect the fragility of India’s health system. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s party has countered criticism by pointing out that the underfunding of health care has been chronic. But this was all the more reason for authorities to use the several months when cases in India declined to shore up the system, said Dr Vineeta Bal of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.
“Only a patchwork improvement would’ve been possible”, she said. But the country “didn’t even do that”.
Now authorities are scrambling to make up for lost time. Beds are being added in hospitals, more tests are being done, oxygen is being sent from one corner of the country to another, and manufacturing of the few drugs effective against coronavirus is being scaled up.
The challenges are steep in states where elections were held and unmasked crowds probably worsened the spread of the virus. The average number of daily infections in West Bengal state has increased by a multiple of 32 to over 17,000 since the balloting began.
Punyabrata Goon, convener of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, said:
It’s a terrifying crisis
Dr Goon added that the state also needs to hasten immunisations. But the world’s largest maker of vaccines is short of jabs — the result of lagging manufacturing and raw material shortages.
Experts are also worried the prices being charged for shots will make it harder for the poor to get vaccinated. On 3 May, opposition parties urged the government make vaccinations free to all Indians.
India is vaccinating about 2.1 million people daily, or around 0.15% of its population.
Dr Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge, said:
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