With more than 300,000 new COVID-19 cases every day, India is in the midst of a dire coronavirus crisis. And the COVID-19 situation in India is complex, likely caused by a combination of multiple factors, and experts say it will take a global response to significantly reduce the toll.
Back in February, India reported about 10,000 to 12,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to tracking estimates from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. In March, the numbers started rising rapidly and, in early April, the country was seeing around 50,000 to 70,000 new cases per day. On April 30, there were just over 400,000 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.
With health care systems overwhelmed, hospitals are running low on oxygen and some patients are required to share beds, Reuters reports. The thousands of coronavirus-related deaths per day in the country have been overwhelming, too, leaving people to burn the bodies of their loved ones in funeral pyres in parking lots because crematoriums don’t have enough space. And yet, these numbers are likely undercounted, with many more cases and deaths left out of the official tolls due to COVID-19 test shortages and numbers that have simply overburdened administrative systems, NPR reports.
What caused this surge?
Experts say the rapid surge in cases is due in part to two particularly contagious coronavirus variants that are circulating in the country now: B.1.1.7, originally detected in the U.K., is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the state of Punjab, and B.1.617, which contains two mutations that make it more contagious, is circulating widely in Maharashtra, Nature reports.
But people’s behavior and a lack of action from the government likely played a role as well. People attended massive political rallies ahead of the country’s election and the Kumbh Mela festival, often without masks. Even when cases were obviously rising in March, the government did not enact a full lockdown, allowing these large events to take place, Ashish K. Jha, M.D., MPH, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, argued in the Hindustan Times. These issues, along with the variants circulating right now, all contributed to the current COVID-19 surge in India.
What would help alleviate the situation?
Continuing vaccinations is obviously important, but providing more high-grade masks should be the first priority, Abraar Karan, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote on Twitter. “With high-grade mask protection, you can functionally stop transmission both ways. This means that if you’re infected, you can stop spreading to others; and if you’re not yet infected, you can be better protected while doing daily essential activities that can’t be stopped,” he said. “This is of course with the goal of getting vaccinated; but as is known, immunity post-vaccination is not immediate; during a surge like the one in India, better PPE is the most immediate solution.”
Widespread rapid COVID-19 testing will also be key, Dr. Karan and his co-authors argued in a Washington Post op-ed. Rapid antigen tests look for the presence of proteins that appear on the surface of the coronavirus. Although they are somewhat less accurate than PCR tests for COVID-19, these rapid tests are often cheaper and can provide generally accurate results within minutes, allowing for a large number of people to be screened quickly and often.
Additionally, the U.S. could help by sending medications, oxygen, and other supplies to help treat sick patients, as well as materials to help the country’s vaccine manufacturers ramp up production, Dr. Jha wrote in another WaPo op-ed. “None of this is straightforward, all of it is vital,” he said on Twitter. “An important moment for American leadership and one democracy helping another.”