April 26, 2021
IntelBrief: COVID-19 Devastates India as the Pandemic Continues to Wreak Havoc
India is the latest nation at the eye of the COVID-19 storm, setting daily records last week as the number of cases per day eclipsed 350,000 over the weekend. Indian hospitals are overwhelmed and there is a nationwide shortage of oxygen and ventilators. There is a complete dearth of hospital beds for patients who need them and there have been several lethal mishaps at hospitals, including a fire and a leaking oxygen tank. In total, India has now recorded more than 16.6 million COVID-19 cases overall, second globally only to the United States. According to official government figures, last week alone, nearly 8,000 Indians died from the coronavirus. On Friday, 2,263 deaths were reported on that day alone. Most frightening, the worst may still be yet to come, especially with the way deaths lag infections. India’s dense urban areas and the close quarters living in slums make it nearly impossible to curb rising infections in highly populated cities, towns, and villages throughout the country. Although initially it seemed that India had been spared such scenes, this brutal wave has been attributed to a mix of new strains and lax precautions, and several regional neighbors are anxiously watching the evolving crisis in India, which may well spill over the borders and wreak further havoc.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire from critics who claim that his administration failed to prepare for the inevitable spread of variants. Widespread gatherings have also been allowed to occur, including religious festivals and political rallies, which have in turn contributed to the spread of the virus. Modi has been spending his time stumping for his Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in regional elections in West Bengal, where tens of thousands of supporters have attended indoor rallies. Modi’s Home Minister Ahmat Shah has also been heavily criticized for campaigning with Modi on his various political “road shows” instead of coordinating government efforts to deal with the spiraling crisis. Other factors for the severity of the second wave include the relaxation of safety measures, whether out of complacency, fatigue or some combination thereof, and reduced social distancing and less assiduous mask wearing. Another worrisome development is the discovery of the double mutant variant, which may have originated in India. The western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, has been hit particularly hard.
Some countries, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, have already begun to limit or cancel direct flights arriving from India. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently canceled his trip to Delhi and India has been added to the U.K.’s “red list” meaning people have to quarantine for 10 days on return. There have been accusations that the government is even deliberately undercounting the number of dead each day. New Delhi was finally placed on lockdown one week ago, with several other Indian states following suit, including Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. As one of the world’s vaccine production powerhouses, India exported millions of doses of vaccines earlier this year, but is now facing major shortages for its own citizens. Last month, India halted large exports in order to expand its domestic vaccination program, a Herculean effort in a country with approximately 1.3 billion people.
India’s plight has attracted the attention of other countries around the world. Germany has pledged to send nearly two dozen mobile oxygen generating plants The Indian Air Force flew in four oxygen containers from Singapore over the weekend. India recently approved Sputnik V, the Russian-made vaccine, for emergency use. There is still a question about what role the United States will play in helping India, although U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), said the U.S. has “the resources to help and other people need it,” making it “our moral obligation to do so.” Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted messages of support over the weekend, with Blinken suggesting that Washington is "working closely with our partners in the Indian government" to "rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India's health care heroes." More than one year into the pandemic, a sharp convergence is emerging between developed and developing countries in terms of vaccine production, access, and distribution. This cleavage will only continue to widen unless there is a truly global effort to deal with the pandemic and assist the most vulnerable countries. While the United States has approved $4 billion in funding support to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance to ensure lower-income economies have equitable access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines on the same urgent timeline as wealthier countries, China and other states early on engaged in more proactive “vaccine diplomacy” by providing medical assistance and materials to developing countries. In an interconnected world where viruses, like security and development challenges, are not easily constrained by boundaries, it behooves wealthy nations to assist poorer nations in stemming the tide of COVID-19 cases and deaths that are devastating countries like India.