Amid despair over India’s deadly COVID-19 wave, international and homegrown heroes are stepping up

An 85-year-old resident of Nagpur in Central India who was infected with COVID-19 had finally obtained admission to a hospital with an available bed. As he was brought there, he saw out of the car window a woman with her children, crying and sobbing for a bed for her 40-year old husband. The elderly man told the hospital attendant that he was 85  and had lived his life. “You should offer the bed to this man instead – his children need him.” He returned home and passed away after three days. That ideal human being, now deceased, was a relative of a Denver resident, Ketaki Mujumdar, who called me after his story was published in India’s Lokmat News network.

What caused India’s dreadful second wave of COVID-19? Late last fall, the country seemed to have turned the corner. As an honorary professor at the University of Delhi, I have lectured remotely since the outbreak of this deadly virus. Several students and faculty colleagues in Delhi had simply been telling me that the worst was past. Schools had reopened, the political parties were holding campaign rallies for the coming state assembly elections, and the Kumbh Mela went on, where millions of Hindu pilgrims gather to take a dip in the holy Ganges. Was the lax public behavior in observing precautions – masks and social distancing – responsible for the current surge? Was the government caught unprepared?

Several more questions have yet to be answered: what is the role of variants in driving this massive surge? And which variant — the British, South African,  or Brazilian? Mutations have been moving fast and different variants have been found in specific regions, such as the State of Maharashtra and Delhi. Is there a new home-grown variant? If so, how to ensure it does not spread globally?

These are valid questions that must be answered. But the priority now must be to combat the virus.

The situation in India is dire, indeed. Daily new infections on Wednesday hit a new global record of 357,000; 3,300 people died on that day. Although India’s death rate per 100,000 afflicted is much lower than in other countries, more than 200,000 have succumbed to the pandemic. The health care system is strained — hospitals have a shortage of oxygen and beds. I have known entire families to be infected in Delhi, including young adults and even those who have been vaccinated.

President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke by phone on Monday. Modi tweeted that it was a fruitful discussion. Biden said he was sending “a whole series of help” that India needs as it battles COVID, adding that “When we were in a bind in the very beginning, India helped us.”

The European Union, several other countries, big businesses, and the Indian diaspora have swiftly responded to meet India’s needs. Among chief executives, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and the Google chief, Sundar Pichai, are providing financial assistance to India. In the United States, individuals, community organizations, and manufacturers and suppliers of medical equipment have very quickly jumped into action, collaborating under the auspices of the non-profit humanitarian organization Sewa (Service) International. Arun Kankani, president of the organization, told me that in just two days of their Facebook appeal, 56,000 people had donated more than half of their $10 million goal. As of Tuesday, they had already sent 2,500 oxygen concentrators, medical devices that concentrate oxygen from ambient air, especially effective in mild and moderate cases.

I spoke with Vijay Chauthaiwale, who is in Delhi and heads the Department of Foreign Affairs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He said that the COVID-19 second wave has ravaged some parts of India, while others have been relatively spared. Consequently, the federal government of India has delegated authority to regional governments to determine what restrictions ought to be imposed. Also, there are two new vaccine manufacturers and the government is trying to substantially increase the number of vaccinations per day.

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers in India have stepped up to serve.

This deadly virus in India must be tamed or it is feared it might spread globally as soon as the end of May.

Ved Nanda is the director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

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