Covid India second wave
(Image: AP/Ajit Solanki)

“My oxygen is 31 when some[one] will help me[?]”

This was the last of a series of tweets from Vinay Srivastava before he died in his home on April 17 in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, gasping for breath, his blood oxygen level far below the norm of 95 to 100.

The 65-year-old journalist had tweeted the night before, addressing Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, saying his blood oxygen level had fallen to a catastrophically low 52 but he was unable to find a hospital bed, a doctor, or even a coronavirus test. Nothing changed overnight. The next day. Srivastava and his son’s repeated attempts at getting a bed failed. So, they did all they could: tweet, in multiple languages.

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“My oxygen is now 50, and the guard at the gate did not allow me to even enter the Balrampur Hospital,” Srivastava wrote.

The tweets went viral, but no help reached them in time. Forty-five minutes later, a desperate Srivastava sent out his last tweet. Within the hour, he was dead.

The coronavirus is ravaging India — and the government’s response is shambolic. On the day Srivastava died, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at a packed political rally in the city of Asansol, where he gloated at how crowded the event was.

“I have never attended a rally like this,” he said, where crowds were packed “as far as the eye could see”. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who just days before had derided Indians for taking the virus “so casually”, shared a link to the live webcast of the rally, asking his Twitter followers to “watch now!”

India is hurtling toward a health emergency. Many of the top hospitals in New Delhi said on Tuesday night that they had only a few hours of oxygen supplies left, even as the city recorded over 28,000 fresh infections and 277 deaths in the last 24 hours. There have been nearly 1 million new recorded cases in the last four days alone.

India now has the highest number of daily coronavirus infections in the world. On April 18, its figure of 273,802 new cases was more than that of the United States, Brazil, Turkey, and France put together. In the last week alone, more than 7800 people have died due to the coronavirus, according to official government numbers. Pandemic deaths typically lag about two weeks behind infections: the true horror of this week’s case numbers won’t be evident in fatalities until the first week of May.

And with repeated claims of underreporting of deaths, the real toll may already be a lot higher. India’s medical infrastructure, from tests to hospital beds to medicine and the supply of oxygen, is creaking under the weight of cases. Srivastava’s desperate appeals were only one among thousands of users flooding social media, begging for desperately needed help. In the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, one man drove his ailing father around for 24 hours, crisscrossing states over hundreds of miles, in search of a bed.

Amid this catastrophe, Modi has been concentrating not on the pandemic but on politics — and has been mostly absent. Modi has been campaigning for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the regional elections in West Bengal. In the last two weeks, the prime minister has held nine major campaign rallies with tens of thousands of supporters. Well-masked and distanced outdoor events are low risk for COVID-19 spread, but these are anything but that; supporters are pressed together and largely maskless. As a Stanford University study showed of Donald Trump’s rallies last summer, Modi’s gatherings are likely to have been major spreading events.

Modi’s closest aide, Home Minister Amit Shah, has been even more brazen. Apart from crowded rallies, Shah has been crisscrossing West Bengal in massive roadshows, with supporters packing the streets and an unmasked Shah smiling and waving at them from an open truck. Not surprisingly, infections have shot up in the state, from 1274 daily new cases on April 1 to 8419 on Sunday. While all other main political rivals have either cancelled or curtailed their campaigns, Modi and Shah have continued.

Apart from its own rallies, the Modi government decided to allow millions of Hindus to gather for the Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu pilgrimage, in the city of Haridwar. The Uttarakhand state government even published front-page advertisements in newspapers with Modi’s face at the top “welcoming” devotees. Without any social distancing and few COVID-19 protocols being observed, devotees gathered, and within five days, more than 2000 infections were recorded in the city, forcing Modi to “request” devotees curtail the festivities.

In contrast to Modi’s joy at seeing crowded rallies, dramatic visuals filled social media: lines of patients waiting hours for a bed, infected patients forced to share beds, hospital lobbies full of improvised beds to cope with the crush of victims. Retired general V.K. Singh, a former Indian Army chief and current government minister, posted a tweet seeking a bed for a COVID-19 patient, while the son of former President Pranab Mukherjee tweeted an appeal for help.

The BJP has now announced that it will continue its campaign, but will not hold large rallies anymore because it was “now dangerous”, a spokesperson told local reporters. But across the country, cremation grounds are already overflowing with the dead. Unable to prepare their systems to battle the virus, government authorities are beefing up funereal infrastructure. In the capital, which recorded 25,462 new infections and 161 deaths on Sunday, the local government has ordered crematoriums to function through the night as bodies pile up, whereas cremation spots are increasing their facilities and adding more employees to handle rising deaths. In the western city of Surat, the infrastructure in crematoriums is falling apart, unable to handle the pressure of operating round the clock.

The overwhelmed crematoriums point to a pattern of underreporting of deaths. In Gujarat, Modi’s home state, journalists have exposed numerous instances of underreported COVID-19 deaths. Journalists are positioning themselves outside hospitals and crematoriums to keep track of the figures on the ground.

The difference has been stark: on April 12, in the city of Ahmedabad, the government’s report pegged the total deaths at 20, but Sandesh, a local newspaper, reported how there had been 63 deaths in one government-run COVID-19 hospital alone, that same day, by painstakingly noting details of each ambulance that ferried the bodies out of the hospital.

Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state, the city of Bhopal saw eight deaths due to COVID-19 on April 15, according to the government’s official data. But based on documents accessed by local media from the cremation grounds, a total of 108 people infected by COVID-19 had been cremated that day. BJP-ruled states are not the only ones juking the stats, but the majority of complaints have come from three of the party’s strongholds: Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.

All through the pandemic, the Modi government projected that it was ahead of the virus. Health Minister Vardhan declared in early March that India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic. At the beginning of this year, he said the country had flattened its COVID-19 curve. Days beforehand, he had dismissed concerns around the virulent strain first found in the United Kingdom reaching India by calling it an “imaginary situation, imaginary talk, imaginary panic” and told journalists “don’t involve yourself in this”.

Modi, on his part, had repeatedly hailed India”s fight against the virus and called the country a “pharmacy to the world” on multiple occasions, owing to its vibrant pharmaceutical industry and vaccine manufacturing capabilities.

As the second wave hits, all these claims have been quietly ditched.

The country’s vaccine diplomacy has petered out. After supplying 64.3 million doses to other countries in February and March, it has sent out only 1.6 million doses in the first 19 days of April, according to the government’s own data. Domestically, poor planning meant that centres across the country ran out of vaccines, even as the country faced a fresh onslaught by the virus. The government was forced to approve the import of foreign-made vaccines last week.

India has administered more than 126 million doses so far. India’s Covishield and Covaxin vaccines have performed well, offering more than 80% efficacy against infections and seriously reducing hospitalisations and deaths.

After snubbing demands to extend its vaccination drive to cover all adults, the government on Monday finally announced that everyone aged 18 and over could be vaccinated, starting next month. Domestic manufacturers can produce up to 112.5 million doses monthly, with imported doses possibly adding to the total — although current US restrictions may limit those. Getting shots in arms in a vast country is another question.

Apart from vaccines, the country is now looking at importing medical-grade oxygen as thousands of people are left gasping due to a shortage of oxygen supplies. Cities like New Delhi and Mumbai have declared an “oxygen emergency” and have been pushing the Modi government to move faster on making arrangements. There are also demands to import remdesivir, an antiviral drug used for treating COVID-19 cases. Anxious family members have been forced to spend hours lining up for the drug, while others are shelling out exorbitant sums to get the drug on a growing black market.

As the country’s coronavirus surge continues, tensions are rising, and regional governments are caught in internecine conflicts over everything from oxygen supplies to medicine. Different parts of the country are also locking down, unable to cope with the strain.

Maharashtra, now recording more than 60,000 new infections a day, has announced a curfew until May 1. Delhi has announced similar restrictions until next week, and other places are following suit. Fears are already growing over the loss of livelihood for millions of people, especially in the informal sector.

But from the flooded hospitals to the desperate pleas on social media, one thing is clear: the price of failure may be far higher this year than last.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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