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Modi punts responsibility to states as India records highest global single day infections

This week, India set grim and global new high records Thursday with 315,000 cases in just 24 hours and another 2,100 deaths — the highest one day number of new COVID-19 infections of any nation since the pandemic began. The country's already stressed health care system is overwhelmed. Amna Nawaz speaks to epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan about the situation and the Indian government's response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the COVID-19 disaster in India.

    More than a year into the pandemic, the caseloads and deaths in the South Asian nation are skyrocketing.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, while vaccines are being rolled out, stopping the spread is proving a monumental task.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A grim reminder in India that the global pandemic is far from over, as the second most populous country in the world recorded the most new COVID cases in a single day, nearly 315,000, more than any other country at any point in the pandemic.

    India's infection total of 15.9 million is now second only to the United States.

  • Rajiv Rai (through translator):

    People are really scared, they are terrified. Most people have isolated themselves in a self-imposed lockdown. They are not stepping out unnecessarily, and the roads are all empty.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Early in the pandemic, in March of 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi swiftly imposed a nationwide 21-day lockdown, the largest in the world.

    But in recent months, even as cases rose, Modi hosted huge political rallies, flouted social distancing, and allowed mass gatherings, including thousands of Hindu pilgrims at a time along the Ganges River for the Kumbh Mela festival.

    On Tuesday, Modi addressed the virus surge.

  • Narendra Modi (through translator):

    Until a few weeks ago, the situation was in control, and then this second wave of coronavirus has come like a storm. Friends, in the current situation, we have to save the country from another lockdown. I would also like to request states to only use lockdown as a last resort.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, India's hospitals are overrun, oxygen supplies are depleted, and crematoriums are overwhelmed, leaving some, like Vinay Srivastava, begging for help online. The 65-year-old journalist tweeted as his oxygen levels plummeted — quote — "My oxygen is 31. When some will help me," he wrote April 17.

    No hospital could take him. And he died soon after. On Wednesday, an oxygen leak in Western India led to 24 deaths, including this woman's mother.

  • Woman (through translator):

    My mother died. She could not get oxygen, and she died in agony. She has been here since the past five days. She had recovered. There was no oxygen. She died in agony. She had trouble breathing. She died. Everyone there died.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The New Delhi High Court has ordered the government to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to try and save lives, as the number of coronavirus cases continue to grow.

    Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan is an economist, epidemiologist and senior research scholar with Princeton University. He joins me now from New Delhi, India.

    Doctor, welcome to the "NewsHour" and thanks for joining us.

    You are in New Delhi. Can you just describe what it is you're seeing there?

  • Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    Amna, it's probably the worst humanitarian crisis that I have ever witnessed.

    There are people without a hospital beds. There's no oxygen. I'm hearing of people who are dying because the oxygen ran out in their hospitals. It's indescribable. And I hope to never witness anything like what we're going through right now again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As an epidemiologist, when you see that spike, you see that curve going like this, do you worry what happens if that goes unchecked?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    Well, as an epidemiologist, I know that that place that curve goes is basically determined entirely by human behavior and people's attitudes.

    So, it's there because mass gatherings were allowed, because the messaging was poor in terms of how serious the virus was and is. And the system is already overrun right now. And it's hard to imagine what it's going to look like when we have another million cases over the next three or four days and another million after the next three or four days after that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the mass gatherings, the reopenings. We all remember when Prime Minister Modi locked down the entire country. What led to the decision to reopen to this degree?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    The country was locked down when the cases were only 500, simply because there was an understanding that it could simply not deal with the kind of upswing we're seeing right now a year ago, when the system was unprepared.

    After September, the cases started coming down. And like with many other countries, people both in government and outside assumed that the worst was over and that India had crossed into some sense of herd immunity and the cases were not going to come back.

    Now, that was obviously not true. In a country the size of India, even if you have 300 million infections in the first round, that still leaves over a billion people who have not yet been infected. And that's sufficient to have a second, maybe even a third and a fourth wave. And that's what we're seeing now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Many of the reports we're seeing are coming from urban centers and from city locations. What about the non-urban areas? What about rural areas, where we know the majority of India's population lives?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    Seventy percent of India lives in rural areas, and the virus has definitely spread.

    In fact, even on this round, the predominantly affected populations are the urban well-off who escaped the virus in the first round. The lockdown protected the well-off, even as it ravaged the poor and urban areas.

    This time around, it's definitely in rural India as well, where the infrastructure is much weaker.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about vaccines, Doctor? We know India is a vaccine producer. Where is India in its vaccination process?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    India got off to a great start with two vaccines, one developed by Oxford and licensed to India by AstraZeneca.

    The other one was a truly indigenous Indian vaccine. India was exporting a lot of vaccines, but the production was not accounted for properly, in the sense that there's a shortage of vaccines now. There's hardly enough even to meet the domestic demand, let alone export vaccine to other countries.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We know some states have implemented lockdowns. Do you expect there to be more leaders taking that step? Do you think another national lockdown is necessary to slow the spread now?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    I think a national lockdown is unlikely, both because it's probably not necessary. The virus is not bad everywhere. It's probably not sustainable, given the condition of India's economy.

    But state level lockdowns, like in New Delhi, Maharashtra, these will likely continue. And, in some sense, that's the only tool that is left to governments to be able to signal the seriousness of the virus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    If that messaging is not made clear, what do you worry will happen?

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    If that messaging is not made clear, even now, after all the scenes that we all hear, every family has been affected by COVID at this point in time that I'm aware of.

    But if people don't take that seriously, both policy-makers and ordinary folks, we could see this being a lot more painful over the next few weeks than it already is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan joining us from New Delhi, India, tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time, Doctor. We wish you well.

  • Ramanan Laxminarayan:

    Thanks for having me.

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