How did India’s Covid crisis get this bad? Hospitals are overrun, oxygen has all but run out, and images of mass cremations in Delhi are being spread on social media. More than 300,000 new cases are being reported every day. The reported death toll from last week alone is more than 16,000, but the real number is believed to be much higher.

Compare the current situation to February, when India’s grasp of Covid and minimal case numbers puzzled Indian epidemiologists. The only logical solution, epidemiologists said, was widespread immunity, particularly in the large cities.

Now, the country is grappling through one of the deadliest waves seen anywhere in the world.

Burning funeral pyres in Delhi on April 26, 2021. (Photo by Partha Sarkar/Xinhua via Getty)

So what happened? And what is Australia doing to help?

How did India get here?

The current crisis has led experts to reexamine their previous theory that Indians were benefitting from widespread immunity. Instead, it’s looking like a devastating combination of complacency, poor government decisions, and particularly infectious strains of the virus.

Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has been slammed for lifting pretty much all restrictions on social gatherings, allowing for religious events, cricket games and political rallies to go ahead, where they were attended by thousands of people.

The vaccine rollout kicking off in January put everyone in a “relaxed mood”, New Delhi-based epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan told Nature. People let their guards down, socalised more, and even put off getting vaccinated. [LINK]

And while it’s too early to say if it is a new, more infectious strain, there has been anecdotal evidence that point to it: in the first wave, individuals would test positive. Now, it’s entire households.

“The second wave has made the last one look like a ripple in a bathtub,” Zarir Udwadia, a clinician-researcher in pulmonary medicine at P D Hinduja Hospital & Medical Research Centre in Mumbai, told Nature.

india covid numbers
Source: JHU CSSE. Photo: Google.

How bad is it?

Bad. Really, really bad. On Tuesday, the country recorded 323,144 new infections, bringing the total to 1.76 million. It ended five straight days of new coronavirus case records for the country, being slightly under the 352,991 new reported cases from Monday.

Roughly 117 Indians are dying every hour, according to official figures – but as already stated, the true number is believed to be much higher.

The army has been mobilised to transport oxygen to hospitals, with retired medical personal from armed forces being recalled to work in COVID facilities. However, hospitals are overrun – there are reports of basements and train carriages being turned into Covid facilities – and nearly all ventilators are being used.

“There are literally bodies lined up outside the crematoriums, because people are queuing with their dead,” The Guardian‘s south Asia correspondent Hannah Ellis-Peterson, who is based in Dehli, told the publication’s Today In Focus podcast.

“People have to set up their own funeral pyers and they’re burning their relatives in the carpark, because otherwise they have to wait days to do it. It’s almost unfathomable, the tragedy.”

Ellis-Peterson recounted the story of a 22-year-old woman suffering Covid, whose paramedic husband drove around frantically trying to find her a hospital bed. She says he eventually paid a significant amount to have her admitted in a private, non-Covid hospital for the night. The woman was discharged at 5am the following morning, and died a few hours later at home.

“It’s really been impacting on young people,” Ellis-Peterson said.

What is Australia doing to help?

Governments around the world are offering support, both to help the crisis unfolding in India and to prevent the outbreak from spreading further.

Australia is sending an initial package of 500 ventilators, one million surgical masks, 500,000 P2 and N95 masks, 100,000 pairs of goggles and 20,000 face shields, Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday.

“I stress this is an initial package, there’ll be more to follow,” he said.

However, he also temporarily suspended all flights from India to Australia until at least May 15, a devastating blow to the 9,000 Australians currently stuck there. Of those 9,000 people, 650 are considered to be vulnerable.

“Each day I read the news and I don’t stop crying,” one woman, whose husband is stuck in India, told The Guardian Australia. (Her name was not printed in full, at her request.) “We don’t have the money to book another flight and risk a border change forcing it to be cancelled.”

How can we as individuals help?

There are a number of registered charities supplying much-needed oxygen, medication, medical equipment and meals.

Indian crowdfuding site Ketto is sourcing donations to help hospitals get immediate access to oxygen concentrators.

Another Indian crowd-funding site, Milaap, is crowdfunding for food to Covid patients isolated in different parts of Delhi, as well providing 1000 food packets per day to people experiencing homelessness. (Milaap will not be charging donation fees to this cause, but is also hosting a number of other fundraisers online to meet different needs.)

Aussie Cricketer Pat Cummins donated $50,000 to the PM Cares Fund, the government-run account set up during the pandemic to legally collect donations from foreign interests. (It’s chaired by Modi, but in response to criticisms over a lack of audits and transparency, the Indian government arranged for independent auditors to be involved.)

“India is a country I’ve come to love dearly over the years and the people here are some of the warmest and kindest I’ve ever met,” Cummins said in a statement.

“To know so many are suffering so much at this time saddens me greatly.”

He encouraged his fellow Indian Premier League players (as well as fans) to join him in donations; Brett Lee followed the call by donating one Bitcoin, which was worth over $53,000 USD ($68,000 AU) on the date of donation.