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India’s COVID-19 crisis is far from over, and vaccines alone won’t help. Here’s why

The COVID-19 crisis in India shows little sign of slowing down. As death tolls and infections skyrocket, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership is under increasing political pressure and scrutiny. The country is short on vaccines, and other life-saving supplies like oxygen and antiviral drugs. William Brangham speaks to Indian reporter Barkha Dutt about what she's seeing on the ground.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The COVID crisis in India is relentless and appears to be only worsening.

    As death tolls and infections skyrocket, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is under increasing political pressure.

    William Brangham reports.

  • William Brangham:

    This horrible sight is repeated across New Delhi today, crematoriums running out of space for the victims of this virus.

    Many grieving families are told to just wait in line.

  • Om Prakash (through translator):

    People have to wait for at least five to seven hours before getting a chance to cremate the bodies. Although, as you can see, the bodies are being cremated rapidly, there is still a long queue of ambulances carrying bodies of COVID-19 victims outside the crematorium.

  • William Brangham:

    India reported 3,400 official COVID deaths yesterday and nearly 370,000 infections. It was 400,000 last Friday.

    But experts believe all these numbers are likely a vast underestimate of the crisis. Widespread shortages of COVID tests and the numbers of cremated bodies have added to the discrepancies. The impact the coronavirus is having has created a horrific reality for many in India.

    Several hospitals still lack enough oxygen to treat patients, leaving families to look after the sick on their own.

  • Lokesh (through translator):

    We came twice, but they said home isolation is enough and sent us back. He was fine, recovered 75 percent. If oxygen was available he would have survived. But without oxygen last night, he died.

  • William Brangham:

    Now makeshift solutions are required to treat the growing numbers of suffering people. Ambulances line up outside a hospital, waiting for precious beds to open. Old train cars are transformed into isolation rooms for the infected.

    Amid this crisis, though, there are glimmers of hope. Shipments of relief supplies, everything from oxygen to protective gear, arrived from Italy, the U.K., and Germany today. And vaccination efforts are starting to ramp up. Schools are being turned into makeshift vaccination centers. But, to date, just 2 percent of adults have been vaccinated in this country of 1.3 billion people.

  • Manish Sisodia (through translator):

    Across Delhi, we have started a mass vaccination drive for those aged 18 to 44 years. It's the first day today. We will take it further. Our target is to have at least 10 such centers at every school. And, slowly, we will increase it to 300 schools.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his political party suffered a major blow yesterday after losing regional elections in West Bengal, a clear sign that Modi's political reputation is being tested.

    Over the years, Modi has deployed Hindu nationalist rhetoric and nationalist policies that have raised his popularity and transformed India's politics. But his version of nationalism has bitterly divided Hindus from other ethnic groups in India.

    His refusal to stop holding large campaign rallies and to allow a huge Hindu religious festival are believed to be major contributors to this spike. And now, as a new highly contagious variant has emerged in the country, Modi has resisted calls for any further lockdowns.

    I am joined now by someone who has been covering India's pandemic from the very beginning.

    Barkha Dutt is a journalist based in New Delhi. Her work appears in many places, including The Washington Post.

    Barkha Dutt, thank you very much for talking with us on the "NewsHour."

    First off, I should say, you lost your father last week to this coronavirus. And I'm terribly sorry about your loss, and especially grateful for you taking the time to talk with us.

    Could you just give us a sense of the latest of what you have been seeing on the ground there?

  • Barkha Dutt:

    In some ways, it's been a surreal week, because 15 months of my journalistic life have been spent reporting this pandemic.

    And when the news came home, when I lost my dad, in some ways, I became every desolate family that I have reported on outside of hospital doors that are too overrun to make space for patients or cremation grounds that have run out of spaces.

    That having been said, I do want to underline that, even in this moment of deep personal loss, I am aware that I have been luckier than most of my country men and women.

    However, when I look at what's happening on the streets of my country in the major cities, most Indians are not able to get a bed. They're not able to get a doctor. And if they do get a hospital bed, they are dying in hospital because of a murderous disruption in oxygen supply to our health facilities.

    So, what we're seeing is, in the words of one doctor, health care workers who have been sent in to fight a nuclear war with a stick. It has been a monumental betrayal. It has been a monumental failure of policy. It has been a monumental illustration of misjudgment, and it has been a monumental absence of preparing for the second wave.

  • William Brangham:

    We mentioned how Prime Minister Modi has certainly seen his reputation badly dented because of this.

    And, as we reported, he took a pretty bad beating in the state elections in West Bengal. Is it your sense that that election and people's discontent is a real reflection him and his failures here?

  • Barkha Dutt:

    Just because I'm a hardened journalist, I don't draw quick political conclusions.

    I know a lot of people have wanted to see in that result some sort of comeuppance for the policy failures that have brought our country to this pass. I don't know, because this was a state election. The national election, which will decide the fate of Prime Minister Modi, is still three years away.

    Public memory is short, but what I can confirm is that pain and helplessness among people is turning to rage. Any number of people on the streets that I meet and interview with say, what did we vote for you for?

    And I think a lot of people are asking the following questions. Why did India gift away or export vaccines before it had enough for its own people? Why did India not order more vaccines? Why did the government continue to hold, including by the prime minister and the home minister, mammoth political rallies for the past month that this carnage has been unleashed on our people?

    There has been a flip and a turnaround on almost all of these decisions, but it's too late. And experts are telling me that there are not enough vaccines to take India out of the second wave. It's almost as if we have no choice but to live through the carnage.

    So, yes, I think people are angry.

  • William Brangham:

    I know the Indian Supreme Court ruled recently that the government ought to reimpose some strict lockdowns, which we know caused incredible economic pain in India the first time around at the beginning of the year.

    Do you think that that's likely? Do you think the government will take that step to try to put this fire out?

  • Barkha Dutt:

    I think that, although the government was against a national lockdown — and I can actually see the logic for that, because we are such a big, diverse country, that may be a one-size-fits-all formula doesn't work — I think we're now at such a cataclysmic inflection point that even those of us who've been critical of lockdowns are probably going to say, you have no option.

    But a lockdown, if it's not accompanied by vaccines, William, is meaningless. And no matter which city I travel to, sometimes, the gap between what the official data is reporting that day and what I'm physically counting myself is four times.

  • William Brangham:

    If, as you say, the numbers are being seriously undercounted, is that an administrative failure? Or do you think it's something more overt, that they're trying to keep the numbers low?

  • Barkha Dutt:

    I think, at every level, there is some attempt, a clumsy attempt, to contain panic by keeping numbers relatively down.

    For example, a major doctor who owns laboratories that does RT-PCR testing for COVID told me that the moment his laboratories start turning in results which are very high, which reflect a very high positivity rate, he actually gets calls — he didn't name from whom, but he said from powerful people — asking him to slow it down. This is on record to me in an interview.

    When it comes to fatalities, one of the things that's happening is not everybody is going to get a death certificate. Not everybody is getting a COVID test run once somebody has died. And I have also met extremely poor people who can't even find an ambulance to ferry the dead to crematoriums.

    So, I think it's fair to say that we are certainly not counting all of our dead. An undertaker at one crematorium in Delhi told me that, at the peak of the first wave in 2020, he was cremating 30 bodies at his site in Delhi, and now he's cremating over 100 every night through this past week, when Delhi's overall figures, for example, reflect an implausible 400 for the entire city.

    So, those are the kind of gaps we are seeing, some of it, I would say, deliberate, some of it clumsy, some of it incompetence, and some of which is slipping through the cracks.

  • William Brangham:

    Even if you had enough vaccine for everyone in the country, those take a good deal of time to both be distributed and to get into people, as well as take weeks to start taking effect.

    So, I mean, there's still, it sounds like, worse to come for you all.

  • Barkha Dutt:

    Well, William, even speaking with my own father, my father had one jab. And I keep thinking, if the vaccine program had rolled out earlier, if it had vaccines earlier, maybe, if he'd had a second job, maybe, just maybe, something would have worked out differently for him.

    Our vaccination rates are among the lowest they have been in this week, at a point when we needed them to be the highest. So, yes, I think there's no easy way to say this, that vaccines are over as a way out for us out of this pandemic. Vaccine manufacturers in India have told us that shortages will continue through July.

    The only thing that could save some lives is a steady supply of high-flow oxygen. And for reasons that the government cannot explain to us, we are not receiving that at all of our hospitals. And so this is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis unfolding here in my country.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Barkha Dutt in New Delhi, thank you very much for being here.

    And, again, I'm deeply sorry about the loss of your father. Thank you.

  • Barkha Dutt:

    Thank you. Thank you. And thank you for having me, William.

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