As India Reports Record Deaths, PM Modi Warns New COVID Lockdowns Should Be "Last Resort"

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by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, Apr 20, 2021 - 02:18 PM

Once heralded by public health experts for its stringent COVID lockdowns, which helped tamp down one of the most virulent national outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2, India today is suffering from one of the worst outbreaks in the world. After average daily cases surged to their highest levels in months, India on Tuesday reported its largest daily death toll yet.

Despite their unpopularity, parts of India are now under yet another lockdown as leaders try to combat the fast-spreading infection. India's health ministry said 1,761 people had died in the past day, bringing India's death toll to 180,530, still well below the 567,538 deaths reported in the US. On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 259,170 new infections, topping 200K for a sixth day, and getting closer to the peak of nearly 300K seen in the United States in January. Total coronavirus cases in India are now at 15.32 million, second only to the United States, with epidemiologists saying far more infectious new variants were one of the main factors behind the latest surge in cases.

Many experts suspect India's actual deaths are far more than the official count, in part because crematoriums in various parts of the country have been running so long that some of the metal parts essential to their function have started to melt.

In Lucknow, capital of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, data from the largest COVID-only crematorium, Baikunthdham, shows 2x the number of bodies arriving on six different days in April than government data on Covid deaths for the entire city.

In another crematorium in UP, the number of cremations have jumped by 5x in recent weeks during India's second COVID-19 wave. With hospitals full, and oxygen and medicines in short supply, several major cities are reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials than official COVID-19 death data can explain, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data, which suggests that COVID deaths are being undercounted.

"We are working around the clock at 100% capacity to cremate bodies on time," Kamlesh Sailor, the president of the trust that runs the Gujarat crematorium in the diamond-polishing city of Surat, told Reuters.

This isn't the first time that Indian crematoriums have been the focus of media coverage this month.

Government officials say the discrepancy in death tallies could be chalked up to other issues, such as over-caution in reporting COVID deaths (in the UK, the opposite phenomenon appears to be the case).

Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said many parts of India were in "data denial."

"Everything is so muddy," she said. "It feels like nobody understands the situation very clearly, and that's very irksome."

As new lockdowns begin in the hard-hit western state of Maharashtra, people in Delhi and towns of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh put out desperate calls for help on Twitter, asking for assistance getting their families into hospitals. Others reported dire shortages of oxygen and the anti-viral drug Remdesivir.

In a statement delivered late Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged states to only treat lockdowns as a "last resort" and instead focus on creating micro containment zones to tamp down the soaring cases caused by India's "second wave" of the virus.

Manish Tewari, an opposition lawmaker, said on Twitter that a "monumental tragedy of epic proportions is unfolding across India. No hospital beds, no oxygen, no vaccination."

Source: Bloomberg

The trend in India was cited by a Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tuesday who warned that COVID-19 "is going to kill more people in 2021 than it did last year" and cited India is a primary example of this trend.

As caseloads push medical facilities toward capacity, the health system itself is starting to crack. Vaccine stocks, hospital beds and even oxygen supplies are running short, leading to bitter arguments between the states and the federal government. In some places, the dead are being transported by truck because cities have run out of hearses. Elsewhere, crematoria have started to break down because of the sheer number of bodies being burned. The government Monday promised to open up vaccines to all people over the age of 18.

If things don’t change soon, the country will be facing 3,000 deaths a day — twice its current level, and 10 times what was being seen through most of this year — Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan, wrote last week.

Stung by criticism that the government had failed its people, Modi earlier ordered that vaccinations be made available to all Indians over the age of 18 by May 1. But even as the country has clamped down on the export of vaccines to create more supplies for its own citizens, the trend of rising cases amid higher vaccination numbers is unmistakable - and it's starting to worry some experts, especially after the discovery of the country's first "double mutant" COVID strain.