Here’s What’s Happening in the World’s Worst-Affected COVID-19 Hotspot

Since mid-March India has seen a sudden sharp rise in Covid19 cases, culminating in 200,000 cases on April 14—a first in the country since the outbreak. 

Over the last few days, visuals from cemeteries across the country went viral. In the northern Indian city of Lucknow, videos of bodies being burnt in circulation spread like wildfire on Indian social media. On April 15, an Indian reporter said he witnessed bodies streaming in every 10 seconds, even as the state health bulletin reported only 26 deaths that day. 

“These are not ordinary numbers,” a cremation ground employee told the reporter who writes for news outlet The Print. As the news triggered, authorities installed tin sheets to block the view of one of the cemeteries—a move that was in sync with the state hiding COVID-19 deaths. 

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The Lucknow cemeteries encapsulate one of the many stories of the crushing second COVID-19 wave sweeping across India. The country of 1.4 billion people has the second largest total number of COVID-19 cases in the world, with over 14 million cases. 

But experts confirm that it is possibly the worst-hit nation right now, mostly because of misreporting and hidden COVID-19 cases and deaths since the beginning of the outbreak. Ramanan Laminarayan, the director of the U.S. based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told TIME magazine,” For every 30 infections, [the Indian authorities are] pretty much only picking up one as a case. “I would still apply the 30-fold undercount even now.”

Over the last few days, Indians have been flooding social media with cries for help with hospital beds, ventilators and life-saving drugs. India is also reporting acute shortage of drugs like remdesivir and tocilizumab, both of which were given emergency use authorisation during the pandemic. Families are now resorting to black market to source the drugs. 

Bhramar Mukherjee, the biostatistics chair at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, summed up the the reason for the severe second surge in a tweet: “Hubris, complacence, negligence, nonchalance, data denial, slow vaccination and lack of clear and cogent strategy.”

At the beginning of this year, various experts were mystified by the low COVID-19 cases, with lesser hospitalisations and mortality. 

“We were all tempted with a premature celebration of the end of the pandemic in India, throwing caution to the wind,” Mukherjee wrote in an op-ed on April 16. “Scientists including myself were busy coming up with several hypotheses regarding why the virus curve turned its corner, the miraculous decline in India, deciphering a major public health mystery.” 

At the same time, several experts are flagging double mutant strains of COVID-19 in at least 10 states as a contributing factor in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In the state of Maharashtra—which is the worst hit in India—the double mutant strain was found in 61 percent of samples put through genome sequencing. However, government officials are denying the presence of the variant. The Indian Council of Medical Research, an apex biomedical research body of the Indian government, downplayed the mutant strain and said “there is no cause for panic”. 

Last week, amid the alarming visuals from the ground, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that there will be no lockdown. “We have resources and experience now. We contained the pandemic earlier. We can do this again with test, track, treat and covid-appropriate behaviour,” he told the media. 

Udaya Regmi, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told Reuters, “The speed with which the virus is spreading in our region (South Asia) is truly frightening.” 

Here’s a brief summary of what’s happening in India right now. 

Graveyards Are Overflowing With Bodies

Apart from Lucknow, other cities, too, are reporting saturated cemeteries. In the central Indian city of Bhopal, some cremation grounds were reporting up to 40 bodies a day—far higher than what official figures show. 

In India’s capital New Delhi, a municipal corporation-run cremation ground saw over 400 COVID-19 deaths in the first 13 days of April. Crematoriums are also reporting long waiting queues, running up to several hours. In the western Indian city of Gujarat—the birthplace of PM Modi—a man waited for 12 hours to get his turn to cremate his brother who died of COVID-19. 

Hospitals are Running Out of Beds and Oxygen

Several videos from the ground are reporting a harrowing picture of people crying while waiting to get their COVID-19 positive kin admitted, in vain. Many died while waiting in ambulance or long queues outside the hospital. In one video from the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, a woman is seen screaming next to her COVID-19 positive father, who died outside the hospital while waiting for medical help. “We cried for half an hour looking for a doctor, but no doctor came,” she said on camera. 

There are also reports of COVID-19 patients sharing beds. In one case, patients were given mineral water as an alternative to oxygen. In one city, hospitals ran out of hearse vans, so they sent the COVID-19 dead in trucks. 

Some Indian States Have Already Run Out of Vaccines

India has fully vaccinated 14.9 million people—which is 1.1 percent of the population. Many experts have warned that the slow pace of the vaccination drive—which began on February 16—means it will take the country about a decade to vaccinate 70 percent of its population.

Last week, about 100 vaccination centers shut down in India’s financial capital Mumbai as vaccine doses finished. At least half a dozen Indian states have flagged vaccine shortage and the need for re-stocking. On the other hand, India’s Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told the media, “There is no shortage of vaccines and the government of India gives vaccines to every state.” In a tweet, Vardhan also called the news on the shortage of vaccine “fear-mongering”. “Where does the question of shortages arise? We’re continuously monitoring & enhancing supply,” said his tweet. 

Religion and Politics Continue to Mobilise Huge Gatherings Despite It All

The infamous religious gathering of nearly a million of devotees in the northern Indian city of Haridwar—which was approved by the state government despite warnings—is steadily turning into a superspreader cluster.

Over a thousand tested positive over the last three days, and one died. Despite the formation of clusters, the festival officials confirmed that they will not cut short the festival, which is on until the end of this month. One leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party told the media that he attended the festival and tested positive on April 13. 

In another religious gathering, a large crowd in a southern Indian district was seen celebrating a local new year festival, in which people threw cow dung cakes at each other as part of the tradition. 

It is also election season in the country, and several visuals—often posted by political leaders themselves—show huge rallies in which leaders are addressing rallies without masks.

Political analysts said that the mask-less appearance sends a message to the crowd that COVID-19 is over, and that masks or social distancing are no longer necessary. 

Jobless Migrant Workers Going Back Home, Again 

Last year, the sudden government-mandated lockdown after the first COVID-19 outbreak set off one of the world’s largest displacements—with millions of migrant workers rendered jobless and homeless. They were also blamed for spreading COVID-19 as they made their way home in villages from cities, mostly on foot. Hundreds of migrants, who rely on minimum daily wage in informal working arrangements for survival, died walking back. In several cities, panic on the streets and breaking social distancing protocols led the police to use violence on them.  

Now, similar visuals appear from cities where several states are currently imposing restrictions of varying degrees. It’s triggering another wave of migration as workers worry they will be left jobless and homeless again. In Mumbai, migrant workers were seen leaving the city in buses in huge numbers. Similar scenes emerged from New Delhi where workers started their journey home for fears of another lockdown. 

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

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