India runs out of oxygen as Covid wave surges
India is in the middle of a devastating second wave of coronavirus. On Thursday, officials reported an astonishing 3,80,000 new cases, setting a world record for the second day in a row. And all the while, deaths keep rising.
Now, India’s healthcare system has reached a breaking point. At one hospital in Delhi, 25 people died when oxygen supplies failed. Patients, rich and poor, are dying in the streets.
So why have things gone so horribly wrong in India?
At the beginning of the pandemic, experts issued a series of dire warnings to India’s leaders. With a vast population of nearly 1.4 billion, coronavirus could quickly spread through the country’s bustling cities and overwhelm its already fragile health services.
But somehow, India escaped disaster in 2020. In early autumn, daily cases peaked at just over 90,000 – a tiny fraction of the population. India had a strict initial lockdown – but still, epidemiologists were puzzled by the nation’s apparent success.
Instead, it was Western countries that were hit hardest by Covid-19 – the US has recorded more than half a million deaths.
In response, restrictions were abandoned. Thousands gathered to watch India’s cricket team play England in Gujarat. Then, in early April, millions traveled to the river Ganges to celebrate the Kumbh Mela festival. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, appeared maskless at a political rally. India began sending vaccines abroad.
But unbeknownst to India’s masses, a new “double mutation” variant was spreading silently through the crowds. Experts believe that B.1.617 could be far more transmissible than the original virus. With only 10% of the population vaccinated, this is a real problem.
Is India’s Covid-19 tsunami a warning to the world?
Yes, say some. India’s sleepwalk into a second wave should be a lesson to governments everywhere. It is not only in India that people have become complacent, lulled into a false sense of security by falling cases and the arrival of a vaccine. It is time to speed up the vaccination process, and to start sharing supplies with the countries that need them most. If we do not act now, more will die.
No, say others. The scenes of hundreds of funeral pyres lighting up India’s cities throughout the night are undoubtedly tragic. But there is no wider lesson to be learnt here for the rest of the world. There is nothing surprising happening in India – scientists have known for years how viruses spread, and how new mutations form. It was inevitable that when restrictions were eased, disaster would follow.