The epicenter of thepandemic has changed regularly over the past 14 months, shifting from Wuhan to northern Italy to New York before ravaging entire countries and continents. The US and Brazil have been the worst hit in recent months, but now the epicenter has shifted once more. India has seen a dramatic spike in cases and deaths since the beginning of March, a second wave of COVID-19 that is likely to have global implications.
What are the numbers?
Staggering. The numbers are staggering.
At the height of India’s first wave, during August of 2020, the country was recording around 90,000 new cases a day. The world’s second most populous country managed to flatten the curve. By February many days passed in which newly recorded cases were below 10,000. Then in early March, the numbers began to climb. And climb. And climb. And rocket.
For the past two weeks, India has recorded at least 200,000 new coronavirus cases each day. Over 360,000 cases were recorded on April 27, the highest ever recorded in a single day by a single country.
The catastrophe of this second gargantuan surge is compounded by the country’s lacking medical infrastructure. Hospitals throughout the country are short on beds and especially oxygen, which is needed to treat severe cases of COVID-19, such that the country’s air force is now air lifting oxygen to hospitals. And though India is the world’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines, only 1.3% of its population was fully inoculated against COVID-19 by mid-April.
The result is a sharp increase in the official death toll. Reported deaths rarely exceeded 200 a day in February, but have surged to well over 2,000-per-day in the last week.
What makes these numbers even more scary is that they’re probably inaccurate. The real rise in cases and deaths, some experts worry, is significantly worse.
“Last year we estimated that only one in about 30 infections were being caught by testing,” Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of New Dheli’s Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told CNN. “This time, the mortality figures are probably serious underestimates, and what we’re seeing on the ground is many more deaths than what has been officially reported.”
What does this mean for the world?
The impact is three fold. First is the obvious cost in human life. With a population of 1.3 billion and an already overwhelmed medical system, the death toll of widespread COVID-19 could be monumentally tragic.
Second is coronavirus mutation. As has happened in Brazil, Britain and South Africa, a new variant of COVID-19 has been detected in India: B.1.617. The World Health Organization has dubbed it a “variant of interest”, meaning it has potential to be more transmissible or deadly, though its crucially not yet been dubbed a “variant of concern.”
The Indian variant of COVID-19, which was first detected last October, has been found in 17 different countries, according to the WHO. That’s not an immediate cause of alarm — B.1.617 appears to be as prone to vaccination as more standard variants, and as yet there’s no significant evidence that the Indian variant is — though the situation can change.
The third factor is the distribution of those Indian-made vaccines. India has banned exports of home-made vaccines, reasoning they’re most needed domestically. But India is also meant to be the principle supplier for COVAX, a global initiative to distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. When India’s government banned vaccine exports in late March, the country’s manufacturers were responsible for 86% of the initiative’s vaccine supply, reports The Economist.
Led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, COVAX aimed to deliver 100 million COVID-19 vaccines by the end of March, but by April 11 had reached less than 40 million.
How did this happen?
In a January address at the World Economic Forum, Narendra Modi boasted that India had overcome COVID-19. “India took a proactive public participation approach and developed a COVID-specific health infrastructure and trained its resources to fight COVID,” he said.
Modi’s confidence was premature and, as such, many have heaped much of the blame for the second wave on the prime minister. The surge in cases is being largely blamed on several “super spreader” events, including a religious pilgrimage, which Modi did not discourage, and rallies for upcoming elections, which Modi actively encouraged.
“The government did not prepare the country for the possibility of COVID-19 returning with a vengeance, as had happened in other parts of the world,” wrote Pradeep Taneja and Azad Singh Bali, scholars on politics and public policy respectively, for The Conversation. “Second, even as the virus spread like wildfire, Modi and his cabinet ministers kept campaigning in state elections in five states, addressing massive rallies and praising the crowds for turning out in large numbers.”
Adding to the issue is the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that’s considered to be the largest gathering of people in the world. On April 17, around a week into the festivities, Modi said on Twitter that devotees the pilgrimage should only be a “symbolic” one this year, so that India can help fight “the virus”. But critics charge that this was too little too late, as an estimated 6 million visited Haridwar in April for a holy dip in the Ganges River.
Addressing his nation in April, Modi’s tone had shifted significantly since his January statements at the World Economic Conference.
“Our spirits were high after successfully dealing with the first wave,” said Modi in a radio address to the country, “but this storm has shaken the nation.”