India’s COVID-19 Crisis Is What the World Feared
India is suffering the world’s largest COVID-19 surge, and the effects are reverberating worldwide as the country restricts its vaccine exports. International offers of aid are multiplying.
No country has experienced as devastating a wave of COVID-19 infections as India is now. It set a new record for single-day infections last week, overtaking the United States, and it accounts for almost half of new cases worldwide. Experts say a combination of factors gave rise to the explosion in cases: new variants of the virus, including one first detected in India, that are thought to be more transmissible; a weak government response; and large public gatherings. Images from across the country show the tremendous toll.
A Health System Buckles
The nearly vertical curve in COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed health facilities. Hospitals have run out of beds and oxygen supplies are exhausted, leaving many without access to a critical form of treatment.
The average deaths per day are nearing 2,500, and the number continues to climb, pushing cremation facilities and cemeteries past their limits. Overall, the Indian government has reported around 195,000 deaths from COVID-19, but analysts say the total is likely much greater.
Experts say that in the months before this surge, while the outbreak was under control and reported cases were low, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government missed an opportunity to bolster a weak and chronically underfunded health system. A failure to coordinate a national response, mixed messaging around safety measures, and low testing rates all contributed to the current catastrophe, they say. The government is now accused of censoring online criticism about how it has managed the outbreak, with officials countering that they are combating pandemic-related misinformation.
A Global Vaccine Dilemma
The ripple effects of such a devastating surge are being felt beyond India, which is among the world’s top vaccine suppliers. The country has effectively halted its vaccine exports, and the Serum Institute of India—the world’s largest vaccine maker—said it will not be able to deliver tens of millions of doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the global COVAX initiative due to increased demand at home. Many low- and middle-income countries are relying on the Serum Institute for their COVAX vaccine deliveries.
A Global Response Mobilizes
Many parts of India, including the capital city of New Delhi and tech hub Bengaluru, have imposed prolonged lockdowns to try to get a handle on the outbreak. Cities are also reopening field hospitals used earlier in the pandemic, and the central government is diverting oxygen supplies from the military and industries to the health-care system. The armed forces have also been deployed to assist the national response.
Other countries are rallying to provide aid. Australia, China, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United States are among those that have pledged assistance or already sent medical equipment. President Joe Biden announced that the United States will release vaccine-manufacturing materials that had been under export restrictions, as well as deliver its stock of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries in need of doses, likely including India. The World Health Organization is also boosting its support.
For the Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan explains why the outbreak in India is everyone’s problem.
PBS Newshour shows India’s health-care system on the brink of collapse.
A worker at New Delhi’s largest crematorium speaks with VICE News.
Mandakini Gahlot writes in Foreign Affairs that Indians are paying the price for government inaction.