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Earlier this week, during my compulsory early morning review of the latest trending news, I was met with an onslaught of articles discussing the surge of COVID-19 cases in India. The news detailed how the country is reaching record breaking numbers and running out of oxygen, making it impossible to offer even standard care. Mortifying pictures of burning funeral pyres and patients sharing tightly cramped hospital beds seemed never ending. In response to this ongoing tragedy, Western powers have stepped in to soon provide medical supplies. But this official announcement to provide aid comes just shy of a few weeks into this crisis as COVID-19 cases in India began to escalate early April 2021.
At the beginning of April, India became embroiled in a second more deadly surge of COVID-19, stemming from a variety of shortcomings on both the scientific and governmental level. This second surge is not only characterized by proliferating cases, but it also seems to be fueled by a genetically unique strain, referred to in the media as a “double mutant.” This common label means that the strain, known as B.1.617, contains two particularly famous mutations, one predominantly found in California and another that has been seen predominantly in Brazil and South Africa, in addition to several other mutations. Although some research demonstrates that the B.1.617 strain is more infectious in cells on a lab bench, it becomes hard to pinpoint the true cause of the surge, as multiple variants beyond the B.1.617 strain are present within the country.
A Poor Government Response
Complicating matters further, the Indian government, both on the federal and state level, failed to allocate resources to perform genetic screening to better understand and characterize the variants throughout India. This lack of screening effectively hinders the possibility of locating a source of the resurgence, as well dissolves any possibility of effective contact tracing or tracking the chain of transmission. Along with this heterogeneous genetic landscape within the densely populated country of India, the people had been given the false impression that the population achieved herd immunity during the initial wave of COVID-19 cases; it became part of government rhetoric and nationalist propaganda to encouraging millions of Indian citizens to resume a life of normalcy, attend large weddings, religious festivities and densely packed political rallies. With a variety of more transmissible variants, an unimaginably dense population, and notably relaxed restrictions from a premature declaration of victory, India was sitting precariously on a three legged stool.
With a lack of emphasis on the Public Health Sector, India was and still is ill-equipped to handle resurgences of COVID-19 cases. Having only spent 3.5% of its GDP on the healthcare sector, in comparison to a world average of 10%, hospitals were bound to collapse under the influx of patients seeking life saving treatment. Reveling in an apparent victory against a pandemic that was ravaging even the richest Western imperial powers, India even began a policy of ‘vaccine diplomacy,’ exporting over 66 million vaccine doses to other countries while their own population was still suffering, an initiative serving its political dues as an excellent PR opportunity for the upcoming elections. Although the exportation of vaccines from India has been critical for countries like Ghana, only 2% of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated. Yet, the Indian government broadcasted their momentous vaccination campaigns and their apparent benevolence in exportation of their vaccine doses to the world. Under the impression of a waning public health crisis, domestic vaccination efforts began to stagnate, unknown to many Indian citizens, as over 300 million individuals are illiterate and rely heavily on their faith in a righteous and committed government.
Missing Support from the Western World
Although the failings of Indian government are evident, the foreign aid response to this crisis has been equally abysmal, especially from Western powers such as the United States who take unadulterated pride in domestic politics on foreign policy. While many countries have been struggling to manage the pandemic at the domestic level, the devastating magnitude of cases in India has served as a call to action for even India’s geopolitical advisories, China and Pakistan. Yet, with the droves of horrific images and statistics published on the Indian crisis, the United States has shown to be unresponsive. The Biden administration, although adamant on championing the public health sector globally, is currently facing unrelenting criticism for its decision not to repeal an embargo blocking export of vaccines and raw materials to other countries, a policy instituted during the Trump administration. The United States, having provided a declaration of support in a markedly untimely fashion, has signaled globally a feeling of a lack of dependability from the Western World.
This predicament of the lack of foreign aid from the richest countries also emphasizes a larger issue of equitable vaccine distribution, as stockpiled vaccine doses of Johnson and Johnson as well as AstraZeneca vaccines in places like the United States are also not being distributed in places that are lacking in mass vaccination campaigns. Upon FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccines, many countries reserved doses; however, most of the doses have been reserved for distribution in the richest countries, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Out of a confirmed 8.6 billion doses of vaccines, 6 billion of those doses have been allocated to rich countries, an egregious inequitable situation given that 80% of the world’s population resides in poorer countries.
This tangible inequity can also be linked to American pharmaceutical companies lack of interest in considering an intellectual property (IP) waiver, a policy championed by India itself, that could increase access to doses in developing countries.The disinterest to consider an IP waiver has signaled a lack of humanity as pharmaceutical companies are not willing to reject profit from the greater good. Although India has not achieved a significant percentage of vaccination within their own country, their efforts to export doses to poorer countries still remains commendable as many of these countries would not be able to achieve a sufficiently vaccinated population until another two years.
India is on the Brink
Ultimately, COVID-19 cases in India surged as the rickety scaffolding that cushioned the hopes of many Indians collapsed, bringing widespread disease and devastation. Hospitals, especially in major cities like Delhi, have reached maximum capacity, as empty hospital beds are practically non-existent. Disconcerting anecdotes about individuals dying before being able to receive treatment have become more than common. One Delhi hospital has shared that 20 patients succumbed to the virus while awaiting oxygen supplies to be restored at the facility.
The lack of resources to even be able to treat patients once admitted has many Indian citizens turning to black market operations in order to secure a means of survival for their beloved. This lack of resources has ramped up black market prices of potential life saving therapeutics, causing many Indian citizens to gamble their life savings in order for even the slim possibility of the survival of a loved one. The number of cremations for the deceased has become so high that many cities have been running out of wood. Hindu people are unable to practice this vital ritual that represents the emancipation of the soul from the body after death.
This ostensibly apocalyptic depiction of the current state of India has served as a signal of distress for the world: to combat the current catastrophe in India and to reconstruct and uplift Indian citizens from this traumatic time, a global effort will be needed.
How You Can Help
Although this crisis has festered due inaction and incompetence on a governmental level, there are still many ways individuals can contribute in order for India to acquire the aid it needs to overcome this humanitarian crisis. Below are several reputable organizations that have pledged to bring as much aid as possible to ease this recovery process:
- PATH is an organization aiming to generate oxygen supplies to save thousands of preventable deaths in India.
- Indian Red Cross Society is also working diligently to provide oxygen, ventilators, beds and bedside monitors for hospitals in India
- Project Hope is a U.S. based non-profit that aims to deliver generous amounts of PPE and other safety equipment to frontline healthcare workers in India who are collapsing from the unmanageable influx of patients to their facilities.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Illinois Science Council.