India is in the midst of a frightening explosion of coronavirus infections, fueling a new out-of-control phase of the pandemic and spurring world leaders to call for more global cooperation in vaccine distribution.
(CN) — The pandemic is entering a new deadly phase as India, the world’s second most populous nation with nearly 1.3 billion people, suffers a catastrophic rise in novel coronavirus infections and deaths.
On Thursday and Friday, India recorded the two highest daily tallies of coronavirus cases yet for any nation since the pandemic started, raising the specter that a catastrophic wave of death will follow as the virus spreads through India’s densely populated cities, towns and countryside.
A new record was set on Friday with 332,730 new cases. Deaths too are spiking with 2,102 new fatalities reported on Thursday and 2,256 on Friday. No other country has reported such a dramatic explosion of infections in such a short amount of time. A month ago, when the surge started, India was reporting on average about 42,000 new daily infections and about 200 daily deaths.
New Delhi, India’s capital city of more than 20 million people, and Mumbai, the capital of the state of Maharashtra with more than 12 million people, are two of the hardest-hit places with hospitals running out of oxygen for ventilators and crematoriums unable to keep up.
A fire at a hospital near Mumbai, apparently caused when an air-conditioning unit malfunctioned, killed at least 13 Covid-19 patients on Friday. On Wednesday, at least 22 patients died at a hospital in the city of Nashik in Maharashtra after a leak cut off their oxygen supplies.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants also have fled the disease-ravaged cities, leading to fears that the virus will spread through rural India.
“The situation in India is a devastating reminder of what this virus can do and why we must marshal every tool against it in a comprehensive and integrated approach: public health measures, vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, during a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters on Friday.
French President Emmanuel Macron, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other political leaders delivered recorded speeches at the news briefing and appealed for more global cooperation in combating the pandemic.
One year ago, Macron and Ramaphosa helped set up the ACT-Accelerator, a global initiative overseen by the WHO to ship medical gear and resources, including drugs, oxygen and vaccines, to all parts of the world to combat the pandemic. From out of that idea, the WHO spawned Covax, a global vaccine distribution drive.
But a year later, those initiatives have had mixed results with vaccine distribution to poorer countries still only barely begun and the WHO consistently pleading for more money throughout the year. On Friday, the agency said the ACT-Accelerator had a funding gap of $19 billion.
The rapid and devastating outbreak in India – where a more contagious strain of the coronavirus was discovered last year and is partly blamed for driving India’s outbreak – is an alarming development and comes as Brazil and much of Latin America continue to endure an unrelenting wave of disease.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said during the news briefing that the outbreak in India will be difficult to contain because lockdowns and restricting contact between people are hard to achieve in a country with such high population density.
“It is a very difficult task both to reduce the force of infection by having people adapt a behavior not always easy in situations that people find themselves in India,” Ryan said.
Besides being the second most populous country in the world after China, it is also one of the poorest and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been blamed for not imposing lockdowns and other restrictions. Modi, who leads a Hindu nationalist party, is often compared to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another deeply conservative leader who is blamed for his country’s catastrophic outbreak.
Modi is facing criticism for allowing mass political rallies ahead of elections and not shutting down an enormous Hindu festival that takes places in April. The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, draws Hindu devotees to the Ganges River for special prayers. It is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism.
Ryan said it was not appropriate to blame India’s government.
“It’s not the time for recriminations, it’s the time for solidarity,” he said. “There is a lot of fear in India right now and the government are trying to bring calm, they’re trying to bring an orderly approach; the states are doing the same.”
Thursday saw the highest single-day number of new infections so far recorded globally with more than 892,000 cases, according to data tracked by Worldometer. Global deaths continue to climb too with 13,713 reported on Thursday and the past week registered one of the worst weekly death tolls yet with 85,930 new fatalities, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.
On Friday, Ramaphosa, the South African president, warned that the pandemic will worsen unless richer countries step up and start sharing more resources, most importantly vaccines.
“We should say that vaccine nationalism seriously threatens the global recovery from the pandemic and is deepening inequality between countries,” Ramaphosa said. “The Covid-19 vaccine is a public good and should be recognized as such.”
He called on richer nations to waive patent rights over vaccines to allow mass production to ramp up faster in poorer regions of the world. So far, the United States and Europe have resisted calls for patent waivers.
“Let us together challenge vaccine nationalism and ensure that protecting intellectual property rights does not come at the expense of human lives,” Ramaphosa said. “This is all the more pressing as many countries now face a resurgence of infections.”
Macron announced France had begun shipping doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to West Africa through the WHO’s Covax initiative. By doing so, France became the first rich country to donate vaccines from its national supply to a developing nation, according to the Associated Press.
Donating doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine may be seen as cynical because many Europeans have soured on it after the European Medicines Agency said it was likely linked to very rare blood clots in a few people. Europe is now finding it harder to get people to take the vaccine. Macron said France will donate a more “diverse basket” of vaccines as the year progresses.
Due to the problems with the AstraZeneca vaccine, the European Union is racing to purchase massive stockpiles of the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The development of these vaccines, which use a new method based on RNA, have helped the United States get a grip on its outbreak.
France shipped more than 100,000 doses to Mauritania and Macron said his country will donate more than 5% of its total doses by the end of 2021. Macron pledged to ship at least 500,000 doses by mid-June. France has a lot of interests in West Africa, where it once possessed colonies and its military is fighting terrorist groups in the Sahel region.
“It’s a race against time in this pandemic,” Macron said.
He said less than one out of every 100 people have been vaccinated in Africa while one out of every six Europeans have received a shot and one out of every five North Americans have.
“That is unacceptable,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the rest of the world … Now the time has come to share.”
Macron also said vaccine production needs to be ramped up across the globe, but he said patent waivers are not the solution. Instead, he said vaccine makers should be encouraged to sign licensing agreements with other manufacturers to speed up production.
“No continent should be excluded from the production; it is essential,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.