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India struggles to cope with record-breaking COVID-19 wave

India is battling a devastating COVID-19 wave as the case count continues to break records, overwhelming resources including medical supplies. As foreign aid pours in from around the world, the nation has opened up vaccinations for all adults. NewsHour Weekend Digital Producer Pavni Mittal joins Hari Sreenivasan from New Delhi to discuss the mass cremations, scramble for vaccines and the possible political fallout.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The alarming rise of COVID-19 cases and deaths in India is overwhelming the country's resources, forcing extensions on shutdowns and restrictions on travel from the country.

    For more on the worsening crisis there, I spoke with PBS NewsHour Weekend Digital Producer Pavni Mittal, who is in New Delhi.

    You're in New Delhi. What's the situation on the ground? We see and hear about these staggering numbers, we see images of crematoriums working overtime. But what's it like on the street?

  • Pavni Mittal:

    The numbers, as you can see, as you know, have been climbing, but there's enough evidence to show that these numbers, both in terms of the cases as well as the death toll, are underreported. These numbers do not take into account people who've died at home or worse, people who've died waiting outside hospitals, because that's also what's happening.

    Pyres are burning through the night, they have run out of wood. They've actually asked the Forest Department to help out with wood supplies. People are waiting for hours. There's no time for people to say goodbye, to mourn the people they've lost. There's really no dignity for the dead, but also no dignity for the people who have gone through the trauma: the living.

    Many of these people, sick themselves, have had to take care of multiple family members who are critical, you know, paid exorbitant amounts for ambulance, for medical supplies, for oxygen, for medicines only to be turned away, going from hospital to hospital and then seeing their loved one just die in front of them and then take them to a crematorium and waited for hours to cremate the body and then come back, and in many cases do the same thing for someone else they know.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Speaking of medicines and access, what's the status of vaccines?

  • Pavni Mittal:

    India has started its phase three of vaccinations, which is people above the age of 18, which is literally all adults. But states have now come up and said that they don't have enough vaccine. So the drive that was supposed to start on Saturday, May 1st, is now expected to be delayed.

    The government has actually come out and said, you know, please don't show up at vaccination centers hoping to get lucky because you are just going to create a crowd. The state of Andhra Pradesh has come out and said that they cannot vaccinate people between the ages of 18 to 45, which is third phase, before September. Mumbai has shut vaccination centers for three days. They're actually even struggling to honor the appointments that were already made. So the suppliers are stretched.

    We do know that vaccine supplies and raw materials are being flown in, but it's still a drop in the ocean. This is a country of 1.3 billion people that has only managed to inoculate, to fully inoculate less than 2 percent of its population.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tell me a little bit about how this frustration is translating politically, because most people in the U.S., there's an election going on. It's different from how it's handled in the United States. But there have been rallies by the prime minister and other politicians during this time.

  • Pavni Mittal:

    There's just a lot of anger. You know, we've been seeing videos, we've been talking to people who just see a state that has failed to, forget, even help them acknowledge what's going on.

    Rallies were being held just two or three days before the final poll. So it's not as if the rallies were stopped way in advance when the numbers started climbing up.

    And we don't know what this is going to do to the ruling party at all, because the next big election for them is only a few years apart. But there is a lot of, a lot of anger.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, what's surprising is as early as a month ago, there was a sense of confidence that India had beat this. India was handing out vaccines to other countries and here we are.

  • Pavni Mittal:

    You know, in hindsight, people are like, OK, where were the authorities? Because, you know, just because you claim that you beat a pandemic doesn't really mean that the virus has gone away.

    The virus has done what it has done, world over, through history. It has mutated. It has silently circulated, and now it has exploded. And, you know, the sense is that the authorities were caught off guard, but they had, to be really honest, no business doing that because the cases had been climbing for a while.

    What you're seeing is a complete collapse of the medical system and a complete lack of responsibility from the authorities across the levels.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pavni, tell me a little bit about what kinds of precautions are you, your family members, taking on a day to day basis.

  • Pavni Mittal:

    Well, we're locked in. So, Delhi's had a lockdown. To be really honest, I mean, I've been fully vaccinated before I came in. My father's been fully vaccinated and my mother's had one shot. Now, we don't know when she'll get her second shot because she has the COVAXIN and supplies are low, as we know. But I think I've stepped out of my house three times, twice just within the complex and once to the airport in the car.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pavni Mittal, joining us from New Delhi. Thanks so much.

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