The Guardian Weekly
India added to ‘red list’ as PM’s visit is cancelled
The prime minister’s planned visit to India later this month was cancelled because of the country’s escalating coronavirus crisis, a joint statement by the UK and India confirmed. Boris Johnson had come under increasing pressure to call off the visit. He said it was frustrating but claimed that much of the work could be done remotely.
India was this week added to the UK’s “red list” of states subject to the strictest travel restrictions. They mean arrivals from India will be subject to hotel quarantine. New Covid cases in India reached more than 273,000 this week, while worries about a variant first detected in India also intensified. On Monday the health secretary Matt Hancock said 103 cases of the variant had been detected in the UK. Delhi imposed a week-long lockdown from Monday, as the city struggled to contain a huge surge in Covid cases with hospitals under pressure.
Dr K Senthil had feared it was coming. He had feared it as he saw the reckless crush of hundreds of people taking part in large wedding parties over the past months, feared it as he saw the maskless faces of shoppers, feared it as he witnessed thousands come together for political rallies in the ongoing elections in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where he is the president of the state medical council.
But despite his growing sense of foreboding, the second wave of coronavirus that began to engulf India last month has confounded even Senthil’s worst expectations. “People became so complacent, acting as if the virus had vanished, which was absurd,” said Senthil, who is a urologist in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. “Now we are experiencing a wave of coronavirus infections that is far worse than the first and the magnitude of the spread is getting worse and worse. In Tamil Nadu it has taken just 15 days to reach the same level of cases in hospitals which was the peak last time.”
Last week marked a series of grim milestones for India. The country once again outstripped Brazil to become the second-worst affected globally, with a total of 14.3m cases. Each day has brought a new record for new infections; on 18 April the figure was 275,306. Active cases also hit a new high, while deaths continued to escalate to a total of over 179,000 as of Monday.
Doctors speak of a new variant of the virus that appears to be spreading faster than before, affecting young people and even children this time around and pushing India’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse. Earlier this month bodies piled up outside the government hospital in Raipur, in the state of Chhattisgarh, because the hospital had “not expected so many people to die at once” from coronavirus and could not cremate them fast enough.
“This sheer tsunami of cases has already overwhelmed the healthcare infrastructure in the state,” said Dr Shashank Joshi, a member of the Mumbai Covid taskforce. “This time we are seeing younger people between 20 and 40 getting seriously affected and even children are now being hospitalised with severe symptoms. The capacity for the healthcare system to hold on is fast dwindling.”
Despite more than 108 million people having been vaccinated so far, in a country of 1.3bn it has not been enough to curb the second wave. On 13 April the drugs controller general of India, Dr VG Somani, approved the Russian Covid19 vaccine, Sputnik V, for emergency use in India, with distribution likely to begin next month, and also cleared the way for Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to be given approval.
Just a month ago there was a widespread belief the country had avoided a second wave. In January, health minister Harsh Vardhan proclaimed that India had “successfully contained the pandemic”. Caps were lifted on social and religious gatherings.
Much of the blame for the second wave has been attributed to complacency, but an increasing body of evidence, backed by first-hand accounts from doctors, points to possible new variants in India which are proving to be drastically more infectious.
“The rate at which cases have increased in this wave far exceeds the rate at which cases grew the first time,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University. He believed it was “new variants driving this rapid increase”, in particular an Indian variant known as B1.617, which contains two mutations which are associated with increased infectivity and “immune escape”. Menon pointed to data from Maharashtra, the Indian state worst affected by Covid19, where this variant has been found to be responsible for 20% of the cases.
The government has been accused of being slow in genome sequencing over the past few months and therefore failing to detect new and possibly more virulent domestic variants, as well as the Brazil and UK variants. In the state of Punjab which is experiencing a severe rise in case, 80% have been found to be the UK variant. Menon said it was unlikely a second wave in India could have been avoided. “However, a more robust sequencing programme should have acted as an early warning system, picking up the new variants of concern at an earlier stage,” he said. “This would have helped to slow down, if not actually stop, the spread.”
‘We are seeing people between 20 and 40 getting seriously affected’ Shashank Joshi Mumbai Covid taskforce
HANNAH ELLIS-PETERSEN IS THE GUARDIAN’S SOUTH ASIA CORRESPONDENT