'A Crime Against Humanity': Anguish and Anger as India Covid Crisis Surges

A view of mass cremation of Covid-19 victims at Gazipur crematorium on April 28, 2021 in New Delhi, India. India, in the last 24 hours, recorded 3,60,960 fresh Covid-19 cases and 3,293 deaths, which is the highest in the country so far. (Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

'A Crime Against Humanity': Anguish and Anger as India Covid Crisis Surges

"The system hasn't collapsed," wrote novelist and activist Arundhati Roy this week. "The government has failed."

With Covid-19 cases soaring in India, acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy wrote Wednesday that her country is witnessing "an outright crime against humanity" as outside observers fear the crisis could hamper global efforts to rein in the pandemic.

As of Thursday, India now has the second highest number of total cases in the world--over 18 million--since the pandemic began, but a surge in recent weeks has made it into a global hot spot for daily infections and deaths.

So far, there have been over 204,000 official Covid-19 related deaths, but the true toll is likely far higher.

"I do not know of a single family that has not seen at least one of its members infected. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of new cases every day and many more deaths," Pankaj Anand, humanitarian and program director with Oxfam India, said in a statement Thursday.

"The health infrastructure in India is bursting at the seams," said Anand, "and there are widespread reports of shortages of oxygen and other medical supplies in large cities."

According to the Associated Press: "India has set a daily global record for seven of the past eight days, with a seven-day moving average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge."

Headlines over the past few days--like "Round-the-clock mass cremations" and "Covid cases cross 18 million, gravediggers work round the clock"--put the crisis in bleak terms.

The crisis is clear to Jyot Jeet, chairperson of the Delhi-based organization Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, which provides free medical care and has been providing cremation services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Day in and day out, we are surrounded by the smell of burning flesh, and the sounds of crying families," he toldNBC News.

The far-right government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire for its response to the pandemic.

In an op-ed published Wednesday at the Guardian, Roy wryly described Modi as being "busy, busy, busy" with other matters like "Destroying the last vestiges of democracy," construction of "massive prison complexes," and watching as "hundreds of thousands of farmers [were] beaten and teargassed."

"The crisis-generating machine that we call our government is incapable of leading us out of this disaster," she wrote. From the op-ed:

The number of Covid-protocol funerals from graveyards and crematoriums in small towns and cities suggest a death toll up to 30 times higher than the official count. Doctors who are working outside the metropolitan areas can tell you how it is. [...]

The precise numbers that make up India's Covid graph are like the wall that was built in Ahmedabad to hide the slums [former U.S. President] Donald Trump would drive past on his way to the "Namaste Trump" event that Modi hosted for him in February 2020. Grim as those numbers are, they give you a picture of the India-that-matters, but certainly not the India that is. In the India that is, people are expected to vote as Hindus, but die as disposables.[...]

The system hasn't collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps "failed" is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity. Virologists predict that the number of cases in India will grow exponentially to more than 500,000 a day. They predict the death of many hundreds of thousands in the coming months, perhaps more. My friends and I have agreed to call each other every day just to mark ourselves present, like roll call in our school classrooms. We speak to those we love in tears, and with trepidation, not knowing if we will ever see each other again. We write, we work, not knowing if we will live to finish what we started. Not knowing what horror and humiliation awaits us. The indignity of it all. That is what breaks us.

Writing in TIME on Thursday, Naina Bajekal gave a similar picture of devastation.

"India's crisis has blown well past the scale of anything seen elsewhere during the pandemic," wrote Bajekal. "Hospitals across the country are running out of oxygen supplies, ventilators, and beds. Indians are rushing to buy drugs like remdesivir, causing prices to surge, while labs struggle to process growing backlogs of Covid-19 tests."

Blame was also put at the feet of the Modi government, with Bajekal noting that "experts say the current crisis could have been avoided if the government had acted earlier."

Rather than intensifying public-health messaging and ramping up interventions like banning mass gatherings and encouraging mask wearing, Modi and his officials did the opposite. They held mass rallies ahead of elections and promoted the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that drew millions of worshippers to a single town--an event Jha predicts will end up "one of the biggest superspreader events in the history of humanity." On April 17, after India had overtaken Brazil to become the second worst-hit country in the world, Modi told a rally in West Bengal that he was "elated" to see such a large crowd.

The surging number of cases in India spells doom far beyond its owns borders.

As CNN reports:

The more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate and create variants that could eventually resist current vaccines, threatening to undermine other countries' progress in containing the pandemic, experts warn.

"If we don't help in India, I worry about an explosion of cases" around the world, said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. That's why India's Covid outbreak is a global problem that needs a coordinated response. [...]

If the Indian outbreak can't be contained and spreads to neighboring countries with low vaccine supplies and weak health systems, experts warn the world risks replicating scenes witnessed in India--especially if newer, potentially more contagious variants are allowed to take hold.

That possible scenario drew concern from John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What is happening in India cannot be ignored by our continent," Nkengasong told reporters Thursday. "We do not have enough healthcare workers, we do not have enough oxygen."

Despite the fact that India is the world's top vaccine producer overall, just 2% of its population has been provided access to the Covid-19 vaccines thus far.

The Biden administration pledged this week to send India key medical aide--including oxygen, testing kits, and stockpiles of AstraZeneca vaccine supplies, but progressive U.S. lawmakers and outside groups say the White House must go further.

Public health advocates say the U.S. must stop vaccine hoarding, donate more supplies to WHO-led initiatives, and end its opposition to an India- and South Africa-led--and widely backed--push for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization to allow for a massive boost in the production of coronavirus vaccines.

As WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris said Thursday, "What's happening in India can happen anywhere else," and the virus "can rip through a population if you let it."

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