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India's Covid-19 cases top 20 million, as virus surge to 'be horrible for next several weeks'

A peak of the current surge is expected later this month.

Relatives of a person who died of Covid-19 mourn outside a field hospital in Mumbai
Relatives of a person who died of Covid-19 mourn outside a field hospital in Mumbai
Image: Rafiq Maqbool

INDIA’S CORONAVIRUS CASELOAD topped 20 million today, as it struggled to contain a huge outbreak, in stark contrast to gradual reopenings in the United States and Europe.

Infections and deaths from the virus 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”. 

The number of cases in India has nearly doubled in the past three months, while deaths officially passed 220,000 – though the actual death total is thought to be much higher.

A peak of the current surge is expected later this month.

The country has witnessed scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky.

The disastrous turn in India’s handling of the pandemic is 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.

virus-outbreak Source: ISHANT

Shortages of bottled oxygen and hospital beds or because they could not get a Covid-19 test, and a stuttered vaccine rollout is also exacerbating the situation.

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.

Dr Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in the US, said he is concerned that Indian policymakers he has been in contact with believe things will improve in the next few days. He said:

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.

Elections and vaccines

The deaths reflect the fragility of India’s health system. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has countered criticism by pointing out that the under-funding of healthcare has been chronic.

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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.

“It’s a terrifying crisis,” said Dr Punyabrata Goon, convener of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum.

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. Yesterday, 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: “This is not going to end very soon. And really… the soul of the country is at risk in a way.”

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Press Association

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