Hundreds of thousands take a dip in Ganges river even as the nation racks up world’s highest tally of new daily cases.
India has reported 161,736 new coronavirus infections, hitting the world’s highest daily tally once again, for a total of 13.69 million cases, health ministry data showed.
Numbers typically fall on Tuesdays because of delayed results from tests done on the weekend. Deaths rose by 879 to 171,058. Even those figures, experts say, are likely lower than reality.
Over the past week, India has averaged more than 130,000 cases a day. Its toll pushed past Brazil’s on Monday, making it second only to the United States in the number of coronavirus infections, though both countries have much smaller populations.
Nearly all the Indian states are showing an uptick in cases as daily new infections hit record levels, and experts say that missteps stemming from the belief that the pandemic was “over” are coming back to haunt the country.
“Nobody took a long-term view of the pandemic,” Dr Vineeta Bal, who studies immune systems at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, told the AP news agency.
When infections began plummeting in India in September, many concluded the worst had passed. Masks and social distancing were abandoned, while the government gave mixed signals about the level of risk.
When cases began rising again in February, authorities were left scrambling, with some saying the government’s confused messaging failed to communicate the risk.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has noted the need for people to wear masks due to the “alarming” rise in infections. But over the last few weeks, while on the campaign trail, he has delivered speeches in front of tens of thousands of mask-less supporters.
The federal government has also allowed huge gatherings during Hindu festivals like the Kumbh Mela (Pitcher Festival) celebrated in the Himalayan city of Haridwar, where millions of devotees take a daily holy dip in the Ganges River.
In response to concerns that it could turn into a “superspreader” event, the state’s chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, said: “The faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”
“Optics are so important, and we are completely messing it up,” Dr Shahid Jameel, who studies viruses at India’s Ashoka University, told AP.
Dozens of cities and towns have imposed partial restrictions and nighttime curfews to try to curb infections, but the federal government has so far ruled out the possibility of another nationwide lockdown.
Compounding concerns about rising cases is the fact that the country’s vaccination drive could also be headed for trouble. Several Indian states have reported a shortage of doses even as the federal government has insisted there are enough in stock.
Modi has rejected calls from states to offer vaccinations to younger people. But experts say the current limit of offering the vaccine to those over 45 should be relaxed and that shots need to be targeted in areas experiencing surges.
“The burden of COVID-19 is being felt unevenly,” said Udayakumar. “And the response needs to be tailored to local needs.”
India now faces the mammoth challenge of vaccinating millions of people, while also tracing the contacts of the tens of thousands of people being infected every day and keeping the healthcare system from collapsing.
Russian vaccine approved
The country on Monday approved the use of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said.
“India, the world’s 2nd most populous nation, became the 60th country to register #SputnikV after positive results of local Phase 3 clinical study. Sputnik V is now authorized in 60 countries with population of over 3 bln people,” a post on the Sputnik V official Twitter account said.
After a sluggish start, India recently overtook the US in the number of shots it is giving every day and is now averaging 3.6 million. But with more than four times the number of people, it has given at least one dose to around just 7 percent of its population.
India’s western Maharashtra state, home to Pune and financial capital Mumbai, has recorded nearly half of the country’s new infections in the past week. Some vaccination centres in the state turned away people due to shortages.
At least half a dozen Indian states are reporting similarly low stocks, but Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan has called these concerns “deplorable attempts by some state governments to distract attention from their failures”.
Worries about vaccine supplies have led to criticism of Modi’s government, which has exported 64.5 million doses to other nations.
Rahul Gandhi, the face of the main opposition Congress party, asked Modi in a letter whether the government’s export strategy was “an effort to garner publicity at the cost of our own citizens”.
India needs to vaccinate faster and increase measures aimed at stopping the virus’s spread, Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University told AP.
“The coming months in India are extremely dangerous,” he said.