The early months of 2021 saw marked progress in the fight against COVID-19 in some parts of the world, with rapid vaccine rollout programmes in countries like Israel, UK, the USA and Seychelles, and the COVAX facility distributing vaccines in more than 100 markets across six continents. But in April 2021 the attention of the world turned to the new global epicentre of COVID-19: India.
Since 21 April, India has broken the record for the highest number of new cases in a day for five consecutive days, reaching over 300,000 per day. The total number of infections in India is now over 17 million and recorded deaths are over 195,000, however, experts have expressed concern that the real figures are far higher than official records confirm due to low rates of testing.
Just a few months ago India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party declared India as a “victorious nation in the fight against Covid” due to the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A comparatively mild first wave led many to assume that India had reached a level of herd immunity, however, a highly contagious new variant of the virus has led to an explosion of cases. Modi’s leadership is now being called into question, with many asking why more robust actions including restrictions on mass gatherings, cancellation of large political and religious events and even a national lockdown were not introduced sooner, against the advice of public health experts.
The scale of human suffering is widespread. In cities such as Delhi and Bangalore hospitals are running out of beds, healthcare professionals, and crucially access to oxygen, which is a key component of treating the most serious COVID cases. There are scenes of relatives queueing outside hospitals to secure oxygen for loved ones who are waiting for access to treatment. With cases spiking in India’s densely populated major cities, there is now fear of the virus overcoming rural areas as people desperately attempt to escape the urban conditions.
Governments around the world have responded to External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s appeal for international assistance, providing oxygen tanks and concentrators, medication and PPE. There are also examples of global corporations including Amazon and Google collaborating with local and regional governments and NGOs to urgently ensure that funds and equipment are in the hands of those battling the crisis. The WHO’s Dr Tedros has called the situation in India “beyond heartbreaking” and has redeployed 2,600 WHO staff to India from other missions to provide support.
As a major vaccine exporting nation, the situation in India now threatens to slow the global pace of inoculation, as India will likely retain a greater proportion of vaccinations produced at its Serum Institute. This serves as yet another reminder of the interconnected nature of global public health and that the notion of “no one is safe until everyone is safe” needs to be taken seriously by developed economies.