The wailing sirens of ambulances rushing to overfull hospitals; the frustrated cries of doctors left with no drugs to administer; the gasping of oxygen-starved lungs; the lamentations of the bereaved; the round-the-clock roar of funeral pyres…. These are the soundscapes of India as it is overcome by a remorseless resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
India had 21,077,410 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 230,168 deaths from the disease as of May 4, per World Health Organization (WHO) data. More disturbing than the scale of these numbers that make India the world’s second worst-affected country, is the ruthless rapidity of their recent rise.
On May 1, after a week of breaking case number records almost daily, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours. Five days later, even that record was broken, with 412,262 cases. The previous week, the country had surpassed another grim milestone to join the very small of group of unfortunate nations that lost more than 3,000 lives to COVID-19 in a single day. Since then, daily death tolls have remained above 3,200 and are now approaching the 4,000 mark. Today, India’s health ministry is reporting more than 3.5 million active cases.
With test positivity rates ranging from 15 to 30 per cent, rapid improvement seems unlikely. Worryingly, too, the numbers are widely thought to be grossly underreported.
Dearth and death
As WHO’s regional director, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, notes, “The current rapid surge of COVID-19 cases has put immense pressure on the health systems, already overburdened since the start of the pandemic.”
Across the country, hospitals have run out of beds, medication, equipment and, crucially, medical-grade oxygen. Even in the metropolises and the private sector, where health facilities are usually better-equipped, shortages are acute and pervasive.
Graveyards are running out of space and crematoria furnaces are melting from incessant use.
To make matters worse, India’s vaccination drive, too, has slowed down after a strong start.
An urgent appeal
Last week, Fr. Paul Moonjely, executive director of Caritas India, wrote to Caritas Internationalis, asking its members to “encourage the community of [the] faithful, institutions and people of goodwill to contribute generously” to help his organization cope with the crisis. He also sent the following video message:
Redoubling relief efforts
Since the pandemic began, India’s Catholic Church, acting principally through Caritas India, has been supporting some of the most disadvantaged groups, such as slum dwellers, migrant labourers, households with persons with special needs, widows and homeless persons. Relief services and materials provided by the Church or with its support have included:
- Food at kitchens and distribution centres in slums, at migration transit points, etc.
- Masks, sanitizers and hygiene kits to vulnerable communities
- Psychosocial support and hotline services to traumatized and grieving people
- Public education campaigns on infection prevention and vaccination
- Broad-spectrum services focussed on migrants
- Support rendered to the public healthcare system, including the donation of the expertise, facilities and equipment of Church-run clinics and hospitals
To meet the challenges posed by the second wave of the pandemic, Caritas India will have to redouble these relief efforts. Fr. Moonjely wrote, “There is a strong urgency to reach out to the strained and stranded population that has been dispossessed and isolated. We are faced with a massive challenge of preventing our health care system from further collapse….”
Development and Peace — Caritas Canada has pledged $50,000 to the Caritas network to help the Indian people at this critical time.
The need, however, will far exceed that sum, especially since the scourge of COVID-19 is not restricted to India alone.
A region at risk
The pandemic is raging across the Indian subcontinent. UNICEF’s regional director, George Laryea-Adjei has noted, “The scenes we are witnessing in South Asia are unlike anything our region has seen before. We are faced with a real possibility that our health systems will be strained to a breaking point – leading to even more loss of life.”
This spring, infection rates have trended sharply upward in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. These countries’ already deficient healthcare systems risk total collapse because fewer than one in 10 people have been vaccinated in most of the subcontinent. Vaccination rates in the region and beyond are also affected as India, one of the world’s largest vaccine suppliers, grapples with its own shortages.
Laryea-Adjei’s assessment is stark: “The deadly new surge in South Asia threatens us all. It has the potential to reverse hard-earned global gains against the pandemic….”
More optimistically, Fr. Moonjely declared, “The storm will come to an end… with our collective effort,” having earlier said simply, “We look forward to your support….”
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