(Source TheGuardian) – In West Bengal on Saturday, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, proudly proclaimed that he had “never ever seen such huge crowds”. A mask was also noticeably absent from Modi’s face.
That same day, India registered a record-breaking 234,000 new coronavirus cases and 1,341 deaths – and the numbers have kept rising since.
The country has descended into a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. Almost 1.6 million cases have been registered in a week, bringing total cases to more than 15 million. In the space of just 12 days, the Covid positivity rate doubled to 17%, while in Delhi it hit 30%. Hospitals across the country have filled to capacity but this time it is predominately the young taking up the beds; in Delhi, 65% of cases are under 40 years old.
While the unprecedented spread of the virus has been partly blamed on a more contagious variant that has emerged in India, Modi’s government has also been accused of failures of political leadership from the top, with lax attitudes emulated by state and local leaders from all parties and even health officials across the country, which led many to falsely believe in recent months that India had defeated Covid.
“Leadership across the country did not adequately convey that this was an epidemic which had not gone away,” said K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.
In West Bengal, where Modi’s government has refused to curtail the drawn-out state elections that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to win, Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah, continued their public meetings and roadshows into this week even as queues of ambulances lined up outside hospitals across India.
On Saturday, the same day as Modi’s rally, the state registered 7,713 new cases – the highest since the pandemic began. Three candidates running in the election have died from the virus. By Sunday, #ModiMadeDisaster began trending on Twitter.
Doctors on the frontline broke down, speaking of the deluge of dying Covid patients they had been unable to treat due to a lack of beds and inadequate state and central government preparation.
Dr Amit Thadhani, director of Niramaya hospital in Mumbai, which is only treating Covid patients, said he had given warnings about a virulent second wave back in February but they had gone ignored. He said now his hospital was “completely full and if a patient gets discharged, the bed is filled within minutes”. Ten days ago, the hospital ran out of oxygen, but alternative supplies were found just in time.
“There are people lined up outside the hospital trying to get in and every day we are getting calls every 30 seconds from someone trying to find a bed,” said Thadhani. “Most of these calls are for patients who are critically ill and do need hospital care but there just isn’t enough capacity and so there is a lot of mortality happening. Everyone has been stretched to their limit.”
Thadhani said this time round the virus was “much more aggressive and much more infectious” and was now predominately affecting young people. “Now it is people in their 20s and 30s who are coming in with very severe symptoms and there is a lot of mortality among young people,” he said.
The haunting blare of ambulance sirens continued to ring out across the capital almost non-stop. Inside Lok Nayak government hospital in Delhi, the largest Covid facility in the capital, overburdened facilities and a shortage of oxygen cylinders meant there was two to a bed, while outside patients waiting for beds gasped for air on stretchers and in ambulances, while sobbing relatives stood by their sides. Some sat with oxygen cylinders they had bought themselves out of desperation. Others died waiting in the hospital car park.