US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — India recently recorded 46% of all new coronavirus infections in the world, as well as 25% of all deaths. The country lacks hospital beds and oxygen. How did the state, which has become a “global pharmacy”, face a shortage of vaccines and drugs? This and other questions are answered by Al-Jazeera’s resident medical expert, Dr. Osama Abu al-Rub.
What happened in India? How did the country end up in the second wave of the pandemic? How did India, which has become the “global pharmacy”, face shortages of vaccines and medicines? You will find answers to these questions in this publication.
On March 8, Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan announced that India is in the final phase of the fight against coronavirus. As the World Health Organization recently reported, India recorded 46% of all new coronavirus infections in the world last week, as well as 25% of all deaths. What has happened in the last two months?
Due to the high incidence of covid-19 in the country, including due to the aggressive Indian strain, hospital beds were overcrowded, oxygen reserves were depleted, and the flow of bodies to morgues and crematoria increased dramatically. Many die in ambulances or parking lots while waiting for a vacant hospital bed or oxygen tank.
As the organization said in its weekly pandemic report, there were 5.7 million infections and more than 93,000 deaths worldwide last week. India alone recorded 2.6 million new infections, up 20% from the previous week, and 23,231 deaths.
The data are based on official statistics, but the figures can be much higher, since, according to many experts, a large number of infections and deaths are not recorded due to the great pressure on the healthcare system.
While it is too early to pinpoint the exact cause of the current wave of the pandemic in India, there are factors that may have played a big role.
Early celebration of victory
Despite the announcement by the Minister of Health of India about the end of the coronavirus pandemic, warnings have been sounded that contradict such optimistic rhetoric. So, on February 27, the BBC agency quoted experts warning about the imminent “tsunami covid-19”.
In early March, a group of experts and scientists formed by the government informed officials of a more contagious strain of coronavirus spreading across the country.
India’s health minister announced the end of the epidemic in the country after the number of daily cases fell from a record 90,000 in September last year to less than 20,000 in January and February.
All public institutions resumed their work, and soon people stopped observing preventive measures. While speaking to the public during the 5-state election campaign, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked citizens to wear masks and observe social distancing, he himself was without protective equipment. Several ministers were also seen without masks speaking in front of a large number of people. It was also allowed to host the Kumbh Mela festival, a Hindu festival that attracts millions of residents.
“We saw a complete mismatch between what officials practiced and what they called for,” said Chandrakant Lakharia, an expert on public policy and health systems. At the same time, virologist Shahid Jamil claims: “The government did not expect the arrival of the second wave and began to celebrate the victory too early.”
One of the possible reasons for the current rise in the number of infected in India is a mutated strain called B.1.617, first discovered in the country, but it is too early to judge this due to insufficient data.
At the same time, the World Health Organization did not say that the Indian strain is of concern, as it was for other mutated strains, first discovered in the UK, Brazil and South Africa. However, on April 27, the organization said that the study of the B.1.617 strain was found to be more infectious than other strains of coronavirus in India.
On the 29th of the same month, the German Robert Koch Institute warned against hasty conclusions regarding the spread of the mutated strain B.1.617 in India.
The head of the institute, microbiologist Lothar Wheeler, then noted: “At the present time, we cannot definitively establish whether this virus is spreading faster or not.” Other strains of the coronavirus are also having an impact on the situation in India, he said, but data are limited.
He explained that there are results of primary laboratory studies of this strain, but that is not what worries him. The scientist noted: “It is not easy to understand what is happening in India. In addition, we have seen a relaxation of local restrictions.”
Weak healthcare system
The pandemic has exposed funding shortfalls and other problems in India’s public health system. Health spending in the country, including both the public and private sectors, has reached about 3.6% of GDP over the past six years, which is the lowest of the five BRICS countries. So, in 2018, Brazil spent more than 9.2% of GDP on healthcare. It is followed by South Africa with 8.1%, Russia with 5.3% and China with 5%.
Developed countries spend a much larger share of their GDP on health care. For example, in 2018, spending by the United States in this sector was 16.9%, and in Germany – 11.2%. Even smaller countries like Sri Lanka (3.76%) and Thailand (3.79%) spend more than India, which has fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people, and some states have less than 5.
“India originally planned to vaccinate 300 million people by July this year, but the government does not seem to have made enough efforts to secure the vaccine supply and implement the program,” says Dr. Laharia.
To date, of the 1.4 billion people in India, only about 26 million are fully vaccinated, and another 124 million have received only the first dose. There are millions of additional doses in the country, but it is far less than it really needs.
Ironically, India, known as the “world pharmacy”, is facing an acute shortage of vaccines and drugs. The government has canceled exports, derogating from international commitments and seeking help from companies to produce vaccines, and has provided $ 609 million in loan assistance to the Serum Institute of India, which produces the AstraZeneca vaccine (Oxford). In India, it was named Covishield. “However, to save lives, funding had to come earlier,” says Dr. Laharia.
“It will be months before we have enough vaccines to accelerate the program. Meanwhile, millions of people remain at risk of contracting covid-19, ”he added.
India has fallen prey to misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media, as residents are beginning to question the need for vaccinations, hampering the fight against the pandemic. According to experts and activists, the authorities did not take sufficient measures to put an end to disinformation. To complicate matters further, according to Deutsche Welle, a number of public figures and high-ranking officials are responsible for the anti-vaccination awareness campaign.
In mid-April, as the number of infections began to skyrocket, a senior official in the government team responsible for the fight against coronavirus recommended that citizens consult with alternative medicine practitioners if they find mild or no symptoms.
He also recommended that citizens take a dietary supplement called chyawanprash and a herbal and spice drink called kadha to strengthen the immune system.
Doctors criticized the official’s statements. In their opinion, such advice can induce citizens to try unproven treatments, delaying seeking real medical care.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, former director of the Indian Medical Association, Rajan Sharma, said: “This situation is surprising and such advice misleads people into staying at home and taking unexplored drugs. After such treatment, their condition may worsen, and after arriving at the hospital, it will be too late to save them. ”
This point of view is shared by the CEO of the Internet Freedom Foundation, Apar Gupta. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, he said: “When government agencies support such calls, the scale of disrespect for science becomes apparent. How does this affect users of social networks?”
Reports have quickly spread on the internet that inhaling steam or eating garlic, cinnamon and licorice root can be an effective preventive and even curative measure against the coronavirus. A very dangerous idea of the supposedly stronger immunity of Indians against the coronavirus has also gained great popularity on social networks. Its appearance is associated with a superficial and erroneous interpretation of one genetic study involving representatives of different ethnic groups.
“This misconception quickly spread in many languages and in a wide variety of formats, including brochures, photographs and videos,” explains analyst Pratek Wajir. “Many of these videos and publications are reappearing on the Internet because they easily disappear from cyberspace. Even when all these reports are refuted, there are people who are not sure what information can be trusted,” he added in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
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