Health

India in Covid’s grip: ‘If there is an apocalypse, this has to be one’


MUMBAI — Working hard to keep her composure, Lavanya Sharma tweeted a short video on April 25. “Please please please help,” the teenage girl from New Delhi’s Uttam Nagar neighborhood wrote atop her post as her mother lay gasping for breath and her oximeter blinked a dangerously low reading of 52/100.

Sharma’s frantic calls for help didn’t get an official response until the next day, when an ambulance finally arrived to take her mother to the hospital.

This harrowing tale highlights the plight of millions of Indians who are being pushed to the brink by the country’s ferocious second wave of the pandemic.

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I know what Sharma is going through, having seen family members and friends laid low, and even killed, by Covid-19. A neighbor, in his 60s, died while on a ventilator. A political leader who helped me get my first home in Mumbai in 1996 died two days ago from a cardiac arrest that occurred as he was getting treated for Covid-19. Everyone in my sister’s family was sickened by the infection at the same time, but they appear to have recovered. My in-law’s family had it tougher, with two sons ages 28 and 31 needing oxygen in intensive care units for several days. Others, desperately needing treatment, were unable to get into hospitals.

In cities big and small, hospitals are too full to accept new patients and diagnostic centers take up to three days or more to do chest scans of those who might have Covid-19. Doctors and hospital staff are completely exhausted.

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Social media is flooded with passionate pleas for oxygen cylinders and concentrators. WhatsApp groups are filled with messages as friends and families scramble to access oxygen, remdesivir, tocilizumab, steroids, and other therapies. In a country where drug regulatory oversight is suspect, indiscriminate sale of fake drugs is a huge problem.

As someone who has covered the pharmaceutical and health care industries for more than two decades, I get calls for help into the wee hours of the night from family members, friends, and even acquaintances. Fake therapies are something I constantly worry about as I try to use my contacts to help people looking for hospital beds, medicines, or oxygen cylinders. Sometimes I’ve been able to help, but the calls are so many and the problems so big that often I cannot.

The merciless spread of Covid-19 is driving families to extreme limits. People with the means to do so are shelling out on the black market as much as 10 times the cost of a single vial of remdesivir. Others, many of whom are being pushed to bankruptcy, resign themselves to destiny.

Television stations routinely dish out painful stories of families who lost loved ones. “I have money, I have everything but I could not save my sister,” says a young person who cried inconsolably in a TV news report.

Hospitals don’t have enough beds for those seeking help, and even if they do, the shortage of oxygen is an agonizing death sentence for patients who can’t get access to it. Video clips are making the rounds showing people dying even as they are hurriedly wheeled on stretchers into hospitals.

Ambulances are being crammed with the dead — as many as 20 bodies at a time — on their way to crematoria and burial grounds. Funeral pyres glowing 24/7 are a constant reminder of the staggering death toll.

If there is an apocalypse, this has to be one.

Covid-19 is spreading at a terrifying pace, now averaging 350,000 new infections and nearly 3,000 deaths a day. As I write this, the official number of deaths is nearly 198,000.

Public health experts, however, suggest that the number of deaths could be several times higher, and possibly in the millions. They point to the glaring mismatch in deaths attributed to Covid-19 in government files and the actual number of deaths registered at crematoria and burial grounds.

The seething rage at the failure of the government and its precipitous public health catastrophe is giving way to an uneasy sense of desolation and helplessness.

India’s early success in nearly flattening the Covid-19 curve in 2020 may be the cause of the current calamity. Despite a rickety and funding-starved health care infrastructure, the country’s ability to manage the first wave of Covid-19 looked laudable as the United States, Canada, and countries in Europe reeled under second and third waves of the pandemic. Then things went awry. The turnaround raised false hopes that the virus had run out of steam in India and the country would be spared a second wave.

Virologists, modeling experts, and prominent epidemiologists appeared on TV shows to suggest that herd immunity may have kicked in, with testing in some cities showing the existence of anti-Covid antibodies in up to half of communities. Some professed that Indians have stronger-than-average immune systems, or they may be spared from Covid-19 by cross protection from other infectious diseases. A few invoked evolutionary biology and said the virus will not kill all its hosts and endanger its own existence.

Then India’s hyper-nationalism took over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior leaders from his Bharatiya Janata Party, who thrive on overwhelming popularity, took no time to claim victory in the fight against the virus. Election rallies attracted soaring crowds. As Modi and Amit Shah, the two top leaders, brazenly took off their masks during their incessant campaigns, those in the crowds followed and dropped theirs.

Further fueling new cases was Kumbh Mela, a gargantuan confluence of Hindu pilgrims who gathered for a holy dip in the Ganges River. As many as 2.5 million people took part, with scant attention to Covid-19 safety protocols. By the time an avalanche of criticism cut short the festival, the virus had infected thousands of pilgrims, who took it home to their neighborhoods and villages.

Efforts to crank up a badly hobbled economy also added to the spread. Business and manufacturing activities began reopening in May 2020 as ministers projected a V-shaped economic recovery while scientific messaging to keep wearing masks and follow social distancing took a beating. Masks, which had become part of public life in India for most part of 2020, gradually disappeared from faces.

As countries issue advisories suspending flight operations to and from India, the country’s dominance as a global vaccines player is in question. In January 2021, the Indian government authorized two vaccines for emergency use against Covid-19 and committed to help a host of countries vaccinate their residents. The pandemic’s second wave has dealt those plans a hard blow.

The Modi administration has expanded the scope of vaccination, now making the jabs available to anyone over age 18. While this is the right move, it has led to a shortfall of vaccines and slowed the pace of the vaccination drive. While vaccines are seen as the most effective intervention to cut the spread of the virus, there are now serious doubts on how efficiently can India roll out its program.

In 2002, India unveiled “Incredible India,” a high-octane advertising campaign aimed at drawing international tourists to the country of contrasts, cultures, palaces, and forests. Though the campaign remains, it is now overshadowed by the putrid smoke pouring from funeral pyres, the gasps for breath of those afflicted with Covid-19, and the cries of the millions of family members and friends who have lost loved ones to a pandemic wave that could have been prevented.

Unless we get out of this soon, I fear that we will be left with “Incompetent India” — or worse.

Vikas Dandekar is a senior pharmaceutical and health care journalist with ET Prime, an India-based website for analytical and investigative business stories.


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