As the number of cases of Indian coronavirus plummeted in early 2021, I took a few cautious steps to regain parts of my life before the pandemic.
I had a few outdoor lunches with friends I hadn’t seen in a year. My daughter slept with her best friend, whom she had met in the park in disguise only since the schools closed in March 2020. I planned face-to-face interviews and stories out of town and felt the turmoil of my old zest for life.
I was not alone hoping the worst was over in India. Many who had confined themselves to their homes for almost a year began to go out as the infections subsided. Winter experienced a wedding boom, while couples hurried to tie the knot with family and friends who attended. The parks were full of hikers. Millions flocked to the holy river Ganges for religious rituals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his closest lieutenants also took action, holding mass political rallies – with crowds of as many as 700,000 people – to campaign for his Bharatiya Janata party in the ongoing elections to the National Assembly.
Now India is paying for its recklessness, pulling itself out of an alarming second wave of Covid-19 threatening to overwhelm a health system that has just recovered from a busy year. Of about 11,000 new infections a day in February, the country recorded more than 126,265 new cases on Wednesday. The virus is spreading at a wild rate: it only took six weeks for new new infections to increase by a magnitude that lasted three months last year.
“The trajectory is very frightening at the moment,” virologist Shahid Jameel from the University of Ashoka told me. “Such a sudden wave will be catastrophic.”
Until this week, India had few restrictions on commercial, social, or public activities, and many Indians saw little cause for concern. But doctors on the front lines are sounding the alarm. “This is going to overwhelm us in a very big and very bad way,” said Dr. Sushila Kataria from Medanta Hospital, which now has 200 Covid-19 hospitals, compared to the 30th in early March.
Mumbai pulmonologist Zarir Udwadia, who believes the current rush is caused by a new, more contagious variant, says prominent Breach Candy Hospital now has a waiting list of 150 patients with Covid-19 seeking admission. “It’s impossible to get a bed because of love or money,” Udwadia said. “ICUs are full of ventilated patients and wards of patients who need oxygen.”
India wants to vaccinate about 300 million of its most vulnerable residents, and so far it has given about 87 million doses, or about 6.5 for every 100 people. But after exporting more than 64 million doses of Oxford / AstraZeneca eggs produced in India – one of two used in the country – the country now faces a potential shortage of vaccines as demand exceeds local production capacity. Top Indian pharmaceutical companies have links to the local production of other globally approved vaccines, such as Russia’s Sputnik V, but regulators want local “bridging studies” to assess their effectiveness before approving them for use.
As cases rose, the prime minister warned Indian Twitter users to adhere to “behavior appropriate to Covid”. But he continued his politicking, addressing more than 25 mass pre-election rallies to help his BJP win power in West Bengal, Assam and several other states. His warnings were overshadowed by a constant stream of media images showing thousands of his adored unmasked supporters packed at the events.
In fact, since India’s national blockade was lifted last May, public health authorities in New Delhi have stressed that the country’s Covid-19 mortality rate is lower than that in richer countries, seeking to mitigate risks and encourage economic recovery. “Everyone really feels like we’re magically protected in India,” Jameel told me. “Educated people say all the time that ‘in India the virus is very weak.'”
But epidemiologists warn that as infections increase, so will deaths. States are reintroducing restrictions on unimportant businesses, curfews and localized blockades. As I watch the case curve rise steeply, my own fleeting optimism disappears and I return to convulsions.