Nancy Solomon: I'm Nancy Solomon from the WNYC Newsroom, in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. India is in the midst of a severe second wave of coronavirus infections. Today, the country reported more than 360,000 new cases for the sixth consecutive day, and the death toll has passed 200,000. Some hospitals and medical facilities have been overwhelmed by people seeking treatment and have stopped admitting patients as they struggle with limited supplies of medicine, oxygen, and ventilators, and less than 2% of the country's 1.4 billion citizens are fully vaccinated.
With me now to talk about all this is Hari Kumar, reporter in the New Delhi bureau of The New York Times. Hari, welcome to The Takeaway.
Hari Kumar: Thank you very much.
Nancy Solomon: This is truly heartbreaking. Tell us what you're seeing on the ground there.
Hari Kumar: What we are seeing on the ground here in New Delhi is that every infrastructure, every facility related to health and related to death is crumbling under pressure. As far as health is concerned, people are finding it difficult to get hospital beds. If they get hospital bed, that they are not getting oxygenated bed. If they get oxygenated bed, then they are not getting ICU bed. If they're getting ICU bed, then they're not able to get ventilator bed. Secondly, the corona-related medicines are very much in short supply. There is a medicine called Remdesivir, and there is a huge amount of black marketing going on in the undermarket for that medicine.
Then there is another medicine called Fabiflu. The Fabiflu is not easy available. In the open market, oxygen cylinders are not easily available. The oxygen concentrators are not easily available. The ambulances are not easily available to the people, and the providers are charging very high price for those services. About death, people are in the queue to cremate their dead bodies of their family members, and there is shortage of platform, and there is a shortage of wood to cremate the body. Every infrastructure related to health and related to death is crumbling under pressure in New Delhi today.
Nancy Solomon: It wasn't too long ago that India was doing well in terms of dealing with the pandemic. What changed? What happened to create this problem?
Hari Kumar: Well, experts say that this is the new strain of coronavirus. This is a double mutant. It's infectiousity is very high, so it is infecting the people with a very high rate, but the death rate is as same as it was earlier. If the earlier virus was infecting, "one infected people can infect 10 or 20 or 30 people." This new strain, which is called double strain can infect 200 people, 300 people. Because of that, if a virus comes to your house, then it will infect the whole family. Even the young children are getting infected. That was not the case in the earlier.
Then the nature of the disease and the nature of sickness has also changed. Many more symptoms. There is temperature to the people for prolonged period, and people are sick for 10-15 days. Earlier, people were sick for 3-4 days, and within 7-8 days, they will be all right, but that's not happening now. Many people are holding the hospitals beds for long and everybody needs oxygen. This second wave is entirely different compared with the first wave.
Nancy Solomon: I've read that the 300,000 new cases reported each day of the past week, that that's actually believed to be low and that there are missing numbers. Tell us about that.
Hari Kumar: There are missing numbers in the daily positive cases, and there are missing numbers in the daily deaths also. The latest, in the last 24 hours, the number of positive cases is 360,000, and the number of deaths in the last 24 hours are 3,293. Many experts say is that the actual numbers are two to five times higher than this number.
Because in India, the testing is very much under pressure and because now the infection is spreading in the countryside also, in the villages, in the rural area. There, many people are not getting tested. They are getting sick. Some of them are dying. Some of them are getting all right, and they're not coming anywhere in the record. That's why many experts say that the actual numbers are two to five times high. There are some efforts on the part of the government also to under-report, particularly under-reporting of the death cases.
Nancy Solomon: Hari, you talked about the government under-reporting cases. Tell us more about the role of the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in all of this.
Hari Kumar: The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has created a very centralized structure to deal with the disease. Lately, now, they are giving powers to the state that the State Government can take their own decision, but earlier, it was a very centralized structure to deal with the pandemic. I think very quickly, they came into the self-congratulatory mode earlier this year, that, "Okay, we have won over the corona, and corona is an endgame in India," and that complacency and that relaxed attitude, that lowering the guard by the government and by the people.
Now, the country is paying a very heavy price for relaxing the things. Some of the facilities were wounded up. No extra facilities for the oxygen were created. Now, the country is paying a very heavy price for that.
Nancy Solomon: India is the world's leading vaccine provider, but from my understanding, less than 2% of its population has been fully vaccinated so far. What's going on with the vaccination process and what are the problems getting those shots into arms?
Hari Kumar: Well, up till now, India has given one or two doses of vaccination to 147 million people up till now. India is giving those doses to two to three million people every day. It's not a small number, but considering the India when we are 1.4 billion people, considering that huge number, those numbers look small and now it looks that the supply of vaccine is under pressure. Many places, vaccine doses are exhausting and people are waiting in the queue. We are having problems in our vaccination program. It's a huge problem.
"I'm okay," we say all these things, but considering the vast scale of pandemic, no amount of preparations would have been complete preparations, and nobody, no system can prepare for such kind of a vast pandemic, whether it is hospital facilities, so some amount of crumbling and some amount of under-pressure was bound to be there, whether it is vaccination or hospitalization, oxygen, et cetera, et cetera, but because India very quickly lowered their guard, India very quickly came into a relaxed mode, Indian government came very quickly into self-congratulatory mode, now country is paying a heavy price for this.
Nancy Solomon: How are Indians, both those who've been infected and those who are trying to avoid the virus coping with the surge?
Hari Kumar: Well, the people are really living under fear. The anxiety levels are very high. People are less moving outside the home. Everybody is in dilemma what to do, when it will end, how we'll deal with the situation if I get sick, whether I'll get a bed or not. If I get sick, whether I'll get oxygen or not. All these kind of psychological issues are coming to the people, depressing mood, sense of fear, enhanced anxiety. All these things are there. Particularly in the India's big cities like Delhi, like Bombay, like Bangalore, like Chennai, Kolkata, this is the mood in general of the people. Now, because it is spreading to the countryside, nobody knows where it will stop and what will happen tomorrow.
Nancy Solomon: Are the streets, are they kind of empty and are people staying at home or is there still a lot of public life going on?
Hari Kumar: Well, it depends upon which city, because several cities have imposed lockdown conditions, several cities have imposed restricted movements, several cities have imposed curfew. It's not all over the country. Depending upon which city we are talking about, for example, Delhi, you'll find the streets deserted because Delhi is under curfew now, but yes, in many big cities, the streets are deserted, but not all over the country.
Nancy Solomon: How has the international community responded? What kind of help are you getting in what's needed?
Hari Kumar: At present, India needs mobile hospitals, India needs mobile manufacturing oxygen plants, and India needs ventilators. India needs oxygen concentrators and some of the critical medicines like Fabiflu and Remdesivir. Now, in the last two, three days, we are seeing a whole lot of offers, international helps are coming. A lot of stuff is coming from America, from Gulf countries, from Japan, from European countries.
Now, the international help is very much geared up. A lot of oxygen cylinders are coming, a lot of oxygen concentrators are coming, and lots of those cryogenic trucks are coming which transport the oxygen, because that's very much in shortage in India. That will be helpful in dealing with the situation.
Nancy Solomon: Hari Kumar is a reporter in the New Delhi bureau of The New York Times. Thanks so much for talking with us.
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