Eastern Eye (UK)
VIRUS RAVAGES ‘RED LIST’ INDIA
Shortage of vaccines, hospital beds, drugs and oxygen as country battles Covid second wave
BRITAIN added India to its travel ‘red list’ after detecting 103 cases of a Covid variant first identified there, as prime minister Boris Johnson cancelled his first official visit to the south Asian nation following a surge of Covid infections.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday (19) the government had made the “difficult but vital decision” to add India to the red list.
This means anyone who is not a UK or Irish resident, or a British citizen, cannot enter Britain if they have been in India in the previous 10 days.
“UK and Irish residents and British citizens who have been in India in the past 10 days before their arrival will need to complete hotel quarantine for 10 days from the time of arrival,” Hancock said.
The rule comes into force at 4am local time (0300 GMT) on Friday (23).
Samples of the Indian variant have been analysed to see if it has any “concerning characteristics”, such as greater transmissibility or resistance to treatments and vaccines, Hancock added.
As the number of coronavirus cases surged in India, officials on Monday confirmed Johnson had called off his delayed trip to the country.
“In the light of the current coronavirus situation, prime minister Boris Johnson will not be able to travel to India next week,” a statement said.
A spokesperson added that Johnson and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi would instead speak later this month “to agree and launch their ambitious plans for the future partnership between the UK and India. They will remain in regular contact beyond this and look forward to meeting in person later this year.”
Johnson’s office had last week announced the visit would be shortened. It was originally organised to span three days and set to begin next Monday (26).
The prime minister had been initially scheduled to visit India in January. It was heralded as an opportunity for the UK to refocus its international trade policy after Brexit as part of a so-called “global Britain” strategy. It would have been the first major visit for Johnson outside Europe since the UK general election in December 2019 and the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of December 2020.
However, a rise in coronavirus cases, hospitalisations, and deaths in Britain earlier this year led to its delay.
Now, surging infections in India – with five consecutive days of more than 200,000 cases – have led to its cancellation. As Eastern Eye went to press on Tuesday (20), India had reported more than 250,000 Covid-19 infections in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of cases to more than 15.3 million, second only to the United States.
In recent weeks, criticism in India has mounted over how the Modi government has handled the health crisis, as religious festivals and election rallies continue despite reports of shortages of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and vaccination doses.
After imposing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns for nearly three months last year, India’s government relaxed almost all curbs by the beginning of 2021, although many regions like New Delhi and state of Maharashtra have introduced localised restrictions.
“This is Narendra Modi’s biggest crisis yet. It is bigger than any security threat, external or internal, or even the economic attrition of 2020,” political commentator Shekhar Gupta wrote in a column last Saturday (17).
After hundreds of thousands of ascetics and devout Hindus gathered for several days along the banks of the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela, Modi last Saturday called for “restraint”, saying on Twitter the festival should now be kept “symbolic”.
Responding to Modi’s appeal, one of the religious leaders Swami Avdheshanand urged devotees to not gather in large numbers. Hindus believe bathing in the holy Ganges absolves people of sins, and during the Kumbh Mela, brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
Those returning to Mumbai from the Kumbh Mela will have to quarantine, the city mayor said.
Authorities confirmed a Hindu seer died from coronavirus and 80 other holy men had tested positive after attending the religious gathering.
Experts have warned about the spread of more contagious variants of the disease, especially among large crowds at religious festivals and political rallies.
Last Saturday, Modi was scheduled to hold two rallies in the eastern state of West Bengal where state polls are ongoing. In recent weeks, such rallies have attracted thousands of people, few of whom follow Covid-19 safety protocols.
Complaints have also escalated over the country’s slow vaccination rollout, with some state governments raising concerns over shortages and hoarding of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir.
Last Saturday, federal health minister Harsh Vardhan said 125 million doses had been administered and 11.6 million doses would be made available in a week.
Nawab Malik, a minister from Maharashtra, accused Modi’s federal government on Twitter for restricting Remdesivir supplies to the state. A minister in Modi’s cabinet, Mansukh Mandaviya, denied the allegation, saying adequate supplies were being arranged. He said on Twitter the government had intervened and prices of Remdesivir injections have been significantly reduced.
To counteract the rise in cases, a weeklong lockdown was imposed in New Delhi from Monday night to try to contain a spike that has overstretched hospitals. The capital recorded 24,000 coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period, its chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said last Saturday.
“The situation is very critical, worrying. Oxygen is in short supply,” said Kejriwal, adding that almost one in four tests for the virus were giving a positive result.
“Beds with oxygen supplies, and for critical care, are filling fast,” he added.
New Delhi is among the worst hit cities in India, where a second major wave of coronavirus infections is straining the health infrastructure.
Speaking to reporters on Monday (19), one local man said he spent 72 hours hunting for a hospital bed for his elderly aunt. “Neither my aunt or uncle have been able to get a bed and I am so relieved to at least get one bed now,” Gotam Rajani said.
Dr Kriti Aggarwal, a resident medical officer at Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital, said medics are having to turn patients away.
“The manpower here is much less because we are flooded with patients in both the wards and the triage areas and we don’t have enough doctors,” he said.
“The capacity is full; if you haven’t called in advance then we cannot take you. We tell the relatives to find some other hospital.”
The increase in deaths has also led to crematoriums becoming overwhelmed.
In Gujarat, many facilities in Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar and Ahmedabad are operating around the clock with three to four times more bodies than normal.
The chimney of one electric furnace in Ahmedabad cracked and collapsed after being in constant use for up to 20 hours every day for the past two weeks.
“Until last month we were cremating 20-odd bodies per day… But since the beginning of April we have been handling over 80 bodies every day,” said a local official at the Ramnath Ghela Crematorium in the city.
At two crematoriums in Lucknow in the north, relatives are being given numbered tokens and made to wait for up to 12 hours.
Rohit Singh, whose father died from Covid-19, said crematorium officials were charging around `7,000 (£67)– almost 20 times the normal rate.
Some crematoriums in Lucknow ran out of wood and asked people to bring it themselves. Viral photographs on social media showed electric rickshaws laden with logs.
The holiest place for Hindus to be remated is Varanasi, the ancient city where since time immemorial, bodies have been burned on the banks of the river Ganges.
Belbhadra, who works at one of the famous ghats there, said that they were cremating at least 200 suspected coronavirus victims per day. The usual time to get to the ghat – a riverside embankment for cremations –from the main road via narrow lanes was usually three or four minutes, a resident said.
“Now it takes around 20 minutes. That’s how crowded the lanes are with people waiting to cremate the dead,” he said.