The COVID-19 pandemic is currently exploding in India at a horrifying rate. Records are being broken with each day that passes – over 300,000 cases have been officially reported every day for the past week, accompanying roughly 2500 deaths a day for a total of 210,000 deaths since the pandemic began in the country.
However, shockingly, many public health experts suggest the actual number of cases and deaths could be as much as 4-5 times higher, putting deaths in the millions – evidence for this is the mismatch between the government reported deaths and the actual deaths registered at crematoria and burial grounds.
But what caused this catastrophe? Despite India’s poor health infrastructure, low government assistance and high population in comparison with western counterparts such as the United States, it managed to successfully manage and flatten the first wave of coronavirus in 2020 in quite an admirable fashion while countries such as the United Kingdom were dealing with second and third waves.
However, in 2021, India’s luck took a turn for the worse. The earlier victory in 2020, together with an element of strong Indian nationalism, led to a surge in false confidence that the country would be spared a second or third wave. Epidemiologists and other experts in the country suggested that herd immunity had already come into effect. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others claimed victory against the virus and held huge election rallies where they did not wear masks. Perhaps the worst super-spreader event of all was the Kumbh Mela, where as many as 2.5 million Hindu pilgrims gathered at the Ganges River with little regard to social distancing – the virus was carried back to hometowns and villages by thousands of these returning pilgrims.
Importantly, vaccine hoarding from countries like the UK has also been significant. Recently, a Downing Street aide tested positive following travel to India, prompting alarmist headlines about new variants. More troublingly, he was allegedly told to get more Indian-manufactured doses of vaccines, at a time when the Indian government – for reasons now distressingly obvious – was seeking to hold back many of the doses it was previously exporting in their millions, many actually intended for developing countries. Last but not least, more virulent mutations of the virus emerged from countries such as the United Kingdom, as well as from within India itself.
The outbreak is showing no signs of stopping or slowing – in fact, it is accelerating. Hospitals across the country are being completely overwhelmed, and many are simply being left to die on the sidewalk as there aren’t nearly enough ICU beds, ventilators, and oxygen tanks to accommodate them. This has led to a black market emerging, where vendors are price gouging desperate relatives and friends of those dying from the virus for as much as 20 times the market value of items such as oxygen tanks and tablets. These kinds of prices represent the life savings of many Indians.