Coronavirus infections and deaths are mounting with alarming speed in India with no end in sight to the crisis and a top expert warning that the coming weeks in the country of nearly 1.4 billion people will be “horrible”.
India’s official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million on Tuesday, nearly doubling in the past three months, while deaths officially have passed 220,000.
Staggering as those numbers are, the true figures are believed to be far higher, the under-count an apparent reflection of the troubles in the health care system.
The country has witnessed scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky.
Infections have surged in India since February in a disastrous turn blamed on more contagious variants of the virus as well as government decisions to allow massive crowds to gather for Hindu religious festivals and political rallies before state elections.
The reported caseload is second only to that of the US, which has one-fourth the population of India but has recorded more than 32 million confirmed infections.
The US has also reported more than two and a half times as many deaths as India, at close to 580,000.
India’s top health official, Rajesh Bhushan, refused to speculate last month as to why authorities weren’t better prepared.
But the cost is clear: many people are dying because of shortages of bottled oxygen and hospital beds or because they couldn’t get a COVID-19 test.
India’s official average of newly confirmed cases per day has soared from 65,000 on April 1 to about 370,000, and deaths per day have officially gone from about 300 to more than 3000.
On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 357,229 new cases in the past 24 hours and 3449 deaths from COVID-19.
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in the US said he is concerned that Indian policymakers he has been in contact with believe things will improve in the next few days.
“I’ve been… trying to say to them, ‘If everything goes very well, things will be horrible for the next several weeks. And it may be much longer,”’ he said.
Jha said the focus needs to be on “classic” public health measures: targeted shutdowns, more testing, universal mask-wearing and avoiding large gatherings.
“That is what’s going to break the back of this surge,” he said.