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Overcrowded hospitals, oxygen shortage: India’s COVID-19 tally breaks records

India’s health system is collapsing amid a tsunami of COVID-19 cases—the highest in the world. As patients struggle to find hospital beds, doctors are sounding the alarm on dwindling medical supplies, including oxygen, on Twitter. Meanwhile, the Modi govt., which expanded vaccination criteria, is facing the heat for its response to the crisis. NPR Correspondent Lauren Frayer joins from Mumbai.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    India's COVID-19 cases and deaths are now a devastating second wave of the disease that threatens to overwhelm the country's hospitals and medical resources.

    National Public Radio's India correspondent Lauren Frayer joined us from Mumbai with more on the growing crisis.

    How significantly different is the situation in India now than it was a few months ago?

  • Lauren Frayer:

    It's night and day.

    In late January, India was confirming like, 9,000 COVID-19 cases a day. Now we're seeing more than 330,000 a day. India had thought that it had put the pandemic behind it and so started to open up. And then while the country was opening up, these new variants were lurking in the background.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what are the shortages and what are you seeing and hearing from people? What can't they get enough of?

  • Lauren Frayer:

    I mean, basically all the tools that you need to fight a pandemic are in short supply. So literally hospital bed space. I mean, the hospitals are overcrowded. You can't fit more patients into them. Major shortages of medical oxygen. I mean, we're seeing big hospital chains tweeting things like S.O.S. messages like we have one hour of oxygen left at a massive hospital chain that covers dozens of hospitals in the north and west of India. Antiviral drugs, black market prices are skyrocketing, not to mention vaccines. I mean, two weeks ago when this spike really took off, a lot of vaccine centers had to shut.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's the government response been?

  • Lauren Frayer:

    Well, the government has now just opened up vaccinations come May 1st for those over age 18. So there is a rush to try to get vaccinations done. The government is also trying to rush oxygen, medical oxygen supplies to hospitals. There is a special train making its way right now from southern India carrying oxygen tankers.

    But the government has also come under criticism by opposition politicians and many other people for being slow to act. I mean, it was just about a week ago that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding these massive election rallies. There was also a huge Hindu festival, a huge Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges River, where literally millions of people, no social distancing, took a ritual bath in the Ganges River, now are heading home to their homes across India and possibly spreading the virus across the country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How are people getting information, accurate information about the vaccine, about what type of steps they should take if they come down with symptoms of COVID?

  • Lauren Frayer:

    Yeah, I mean, social media has turned into this flood of just desperate pleas for people. One of the things that the government does also it sets up these dashboards. So every Indian state has a dashboard where in real time you can see the number of ICU beds available. So you can know if your loved one needs a bed now, you can check the dashboard and say, let's try this hospital and this hospital.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do you actually see on the news? Or when you go to a hospital?

  • Lauren Frayer:

    There are people dying in the parking lots outside of hospitals. They're crowding into the doorways. I mean, families pushing people on gurneys, just calling out for help. Is there any doctor here that can help my loved one? You can see the devastation in the faces of the patients, the relatives and the medical staff who are working around the clock.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As we know with this, hospitalizations are usually a leading indicator, or at least I should say deaths follow a few weeks after. So the spike that we're seeing and infections right now could mean even more stress on families in coming weeks.

  • Lauren Frayer:

    Yeah, and, you know, I have to stress that the numbers are most likely an undercount because so many people are unable to get tested and we're also seeing crematoriums working around the clock. So you've got to wonder whether all of those people are being counted and whether we will see these tolls go up even more.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer joining us from Mumbai. Thanks so much.

  • Lauren Frayer:

    You're welcome.

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