The World Health Organization (WHO) has said India’s deadly Covid-19 second wave was caused by a “perfect storm” of mass gatherings, low vaccination rates and more contagious variants.
Speaking on Tuesday, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević warned against blaming mutations of the virus as the sole cause of the tsunami of cases that have engulfed India in recent weeks, pushing the country’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse, and said that complacent behaviour had also played a role.
One coronavirus variant found to be circulating in India, the B1617 variant with two mutations, is thought to be more infectious, according to some preliminary science and anecdotal accounts from doctors on the frontline.
“The extent to which these virus changes are responsible for the rapid increase in cases in the country remains unclear, as there are other factors such as recent large gatherings that may have contributed to the rise,” said Jašarević.
The WHO also said unnecessary pressure was being put on India’s healthcare system by people who were going to hospitals in a panic when they could recover from Covid-19 at home. Jašarević emphasised that only around 15% of Covid-19 patients required treatment in hospital and urged efficient screening and triage of patients to ensure people received the care they needed.
India recorded yet another day of over 300,000 new cases on Tuesday and 2,771 new deaths. However, health experts believe the official toll is far higher, with populous states such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat accused of undercounting Covid-19 fatalities and cases. With Covid testing labs overwhelmed in cities such as Delhi, many with symptoms have been unable to get a test.
The Covid positivity rate in Delhi continued to rise to over 35%, while in the city of Kolkata in West Bengal, a state which is still going through heavily criticised state elections, doctors reported it was almost 50%.
The WHO is also part of a growing international effort to bring aid to India, as the country has been crippled by acute shortages of oxygen and medical equipment. The WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said it would send 4,000 oxygen concentrators to India and redeploy over 2,000 experts in India towards the pandemic response efforts.
“The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking,” said Tedros. “WHO is doing everything we can.”
On Tuesday morning, a flight from the UK carrying vital medical supplies including ventilators landed in Delhi. Six oxygen containers were flown in from Dubai and in a phone conversation between the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the US president, Joe Biden, on Monday, Biden pledged “America’s steadfast support” to India by providing oxygen-related supplies and vaccine raw materials.
“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” Biden wrote on Twitter.
The crisis prompted the German army to provide a large oxygen production plant while France has said it will send supplies to India via air and sea, including eight oxygen concentrators, containers of liquid oxygen and 28 respirators.
The EU said it would send medicine and oxygen to India in the coming days. “The EU is pooling resources to respond rapidly to India’s request for assistance,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission, on Twitter.
Pledges of support have also come from Denmark, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Australia and Bhutan. The tiny kingdom which neighbours India, also said it would be sending “a spare few hundred litres” of oxygen as soon as their newly built oxygen plant was up and running.
In March, India gifted Bhutan over half a million Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, which helped the country implement one of the world’s fastest vaccinations rollouts, where it vaccinated 93% of the small population in just 16 days.
Many fear that the international aid being sent to India will not be enough to fill the acute gap in supplies of oxygen, which has been affecting hospitals in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, despite the state’s chief minister insisting there was “no oxygen shortage”, and threatening private hospitals with criminal charges if they “spread rumours” about oxygen scarcity.
On Monday, Australia said it was suspending direct flights from India until at least 15 May because of the rising Covid cases. Thailand, Bangladesh, Singapore and the UK have already placed limitations on air travel from India.
In Delhi, smoke billowed from dozens of pyres lit inside a parking lot that has been turned into a makeshift crematorium.
“People are just dying, dying and dying,” Jitender Singh Shanty, who is coordinating the cremation of around 100 bodies a day at the site in the east of the city, told AFP.
“If we get more bodies then we will cremate on the road. There is no more space here.”