'Beyond heartbreaking': Warning horrific Covid surge an 'undercount'

While India has officially recorded close to 18 million Covid-19 cases, experts are warning its actual number of infections could be closer to a devastating half a billion cases.

India is in the midst of a devastating surge in transmission, recording more than 320,000 new cases of coronavirus infection Tuesday as a grim surge of illness and death weighed on the country.

Tuesday’s 323,144 new infections raised India’s total past 17.6 million, behind only the United States.

It's a situation which World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called “beyond heartbreaking", experts are saying the reported devastation is only a snapshot of reality, with case and fatality figures potentially up to 30 times higher than reported.

Funeral pyres burning in India.
Funeral pyres are being set up all over India's cities as the nation struggles with a Covid crisis. Source: AP

While Tuesday's statistics ended a five-day streak of recording the largest single-day increases in any country throughout the pandemic, the decline likely reflects lower weekend testing rather than reduced spread of the virus.

The health ministry also reported another 2,771 deaths in the past 24 hours, with roughly 115 Indians succumbing to the disease every hour.

The latest fatalities pushed India’s deaths to 197,894, behind the US, Brazil and Mexico. Experts say even these figures are probably an undercount.

Experts warn that current numbers 'serious underestimates'

As bad as the situation is, experts warn it is likely to get worse.

Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, said it would be impossible for the country to keep up over the coming days as things stand.

“The situation in India is tragic and likely to get worse for some weeks to months,” he said, adding that a “concerted, global effort to help India at this time of crisis” is desperately needed.

An AP graph shows the number of Covid deaths in India. Source: AP
The death rate in India has spiked as the second wave of Covid hit hard. Source: AP

Some experts fear the true number of virus cases could be up to 30 times higher, CNN has reported.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi told CNN that both the case numbers and mortality figures are undercounts.

"They always have been," he said.

"Last year we estimated that only one in about 30 infections were being caught by testing, so the reported cases are a serious underestimate of true infections," he said.

Hospital beds shown from above in a big hall.
Hospitals are at capacity in India as experts fear true infection and death rates may actually be much higher. Source: AP

"This time, the mortality figures are probably serious underestimates, and what we're seeing on the ground is many more deaths, than what has been officially reported."

US sends Covid help to struggling India

The US said Monday it is working to relieve the suffering in India by supplying oxygen, diagnostic tests, treatments, ventilators and protective gear.

The White House has also said it would make available sources of raw materials urgently needed for India to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” President Joe Biden tweeted on Sunday.

Burning funeral pyres in an Indian city.
There are fears that the huge coronavirus figures in India may actually be underestimates. Source: AP

Help and support were also offered from arch-rival Pakistan, which said it could provide relief including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, protective equipment and related items.

Germany’s Health Ministry said it is urgently working to put together an aid package for India consisting of ventilators, monoclonal antibodies, the drug remdesivir, as well as surgical and N95 protective masks.

But many say the aid is too late — the breakdown a stark failure for a country that boasted of being a model for other developing nations.

Only three months ago, India’s leaders were boisterous, delivering messages that the worst was over.

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus, telling a virtual gathering of the World Economic Forum that India’s success couldn’t be compared with that of anywhere else.

India's 'visionary leader' has been 'defeated' by Covid

A little less than a month later, his Bharatiya Janata Party passed a resolution hailing Modi as a “visionary leader” who had already “defeated” the virus.

By the second week of March, India’s health minister declared that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

At the same time, the patients arriving at India’s hospitals were far sicker and younger than previously seen, prompting warnings by health experts that India was sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Medical workers wearing PPE stand in front of burning pyres.
A sharp increase in the amount of coronavirus cases in India is leading has seen hospitals shut their doors to patients. Source: AP

Millions of Hindu devotees celebrated the festival of Holi across the country at the end of March, disregarding social distancing guidelines and masks.

Modi and other politicians spearheaded mammoth election rallies where tens of thousands participated without masks. And millions more gathered by the Ganges River for special Hindu prayers as recently as last week.

Now it’s suspected all these events might have accelerated the unprecedented surge India is seeing now.

“Many people across India are paying with their lives for that shameful behavior by political leaders,” Udayakumar said.

In a radio address on Sunday, Modi sought to deflect the criticism over what he called a “storm” of infections that had left the country “shaken.”

“It is true that many people are getting infected with corona,” he said. “But the number of people recovering from corona is equally high.”

Funeral pyres set up in a parking lot.
Some funeral homes have converted their parking lots to pyres to keep up with the bodies. Source: AP

India’s government said last week it would expand its vaccination program to make all adults eligible, something long urged by health experts.

But vaccinations take time to show their effect on the numbers of new infections, and there are questions of whether manufacturers will be able to keep up with the demand. The pace of vaccination across the country also appears to be struggling.

Ordinary citizens are taking matters into their own hands, doing what they say the government should have done a long time ago.

Volunteers, from students to technology professionals, nonprofit organisations and journalists, are circulating information on the availability of hospital beds, critical drugs and oxygen cylinders.

Doctors call for Indians to wear masks inside their homes

“It’s time people start wearing masks inside their homes as well,” said Dr V.K. Paul, the head of a government committee on medical emergency preparedness.

India has also called on its armed forces to help. India’s chief of Defense Staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat, said oxygen supplies will be released from armed forces reserves and its retired medical personnel will join health facilities to ease the pressure on doctors.

Meanwhile, in a bid to tackle the shortage of beds, authorities are turning to train carriages which have been converted into isolation wards. India has also started airlifting oxygen tanks to states in need. Special trains with oxygen supplies are also running in the country.

France is sending breathing machines, ICU gear and eight oxygen generators in a shipment expected to be sent later this week.

Each generator can equip a hospital of 250 beds for several years, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.

France will also send breathing machines, pumps and containers of liquid medical oxygen aimed at helping up to 10,000 patients per day, according to the French Foreign Ministry.

The White House was moving to share raw materials for the AstraZeneca vaccine by diverting some U.S. orders to the Serum Institute of India.

White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told The Associated Press the administration was working on other requests for personal protective equipment, tests and oxygen supplies.

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