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Oxygen Rationing, Test Shortages: India Caught Unprepared In COVID-19 Crisis


Health experts have told us all along during the coronavirus pandemic that this is a global problem, that a surge in infections in one country, often accompanied by the emergence of new variants of the virus, represents a threat to public health everywhere. And that's why we want to begin with the latest news from India.

The country today confirmed nearly 350,000 new daily coronavirus cases. That's a world record since the start of the pandemic, and India has broken that record three days in a row now. The result is that India's health system is collapsing. Hospitals are overloaded and experiencing widespread shortages of lifesaving equipment and medicines.

NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai, one of the worst-hit cities, and she's with us now. Lauren, thanks for joining us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: What is the situation there today?

FRAYER: Well, the No. 1 biggest need across all of India right now is oxygen. Big hospital chains have been tweeting out these S.O.S. messages. I saw one a few minutes ago saying they have less than two hours' supply left. There was one hospital in Delhi where officials say an oxygen tanker arrived to resupply them six hours late, and 25 people died last night because of that delay.

These are hundreds, possibly thousands, of patients dying like this every night. And hospitals are trying to ration oxygen. And these are patients that actually beat the odds and managed to get a hospital bed, which is a huge feat right now in India. And then they die with doctors at their bedsides, helpless. You can imagine how difficult this is for the medical staff as well.

And many of these deaths could have been prevented if India had better prepared for this. You know, we are more than a year into this pandemic.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, Lauren, you know, the reporting had been - your reporting had been that India seemed to be a success case, with the number of new cases going down steadily. What happened? I mean, why was India seemingly caught unprepared?

FRAYER: Yeah. And this just caught everyone by surprise. I mean, in late January, early February, cases were at record lows. The government here declared an endgame to the pandemic. You know, in hindsight, we know it wasn't the end. Everybody went back to normal, though. They stopped social distancing. They weren't so diligent about masks. And scientists say, you know, the virus had not gone. In fact, new variants were lurking, and they've spread at the speed that we've just not seen anywhere else in the world.

And I want to say the numbers that we're reporting are staggering numbers of cases and deaths, but they are almost certainly an undercount because there are shortages of test kits here. People are dying at home, unable to get care. Crematoriums are working 24/7. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing public anger now - that he himself was irresponsible and slow to act. I mean, it was only days ago that he was presiding over huge political rallies with thousands of attendees.

MARTIN: So what's the government doing now?

FRAYER: Well, Modi cancelled one of his rallies yesterday to chair an emergency meeting. He did another emergency meeting today. He announced he's lifting customs duties on oxygen imports. He's also widening the eligibility for vaccinations starting May 1. But, you know, it's unclear how they will provide those doses because they've already run out.

This was a point of pride. India is the world's biggest vaccine maker. It had been exporting vaccines. And now it doesn't have enough for its own population. The biggest supplier here is pleading with the United States, with President Biden, to lift an export ban on raw materials - things like test tubes that they need to ramp up production. And so far, the U.S. has not obliged, hasn't done that.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you, Lauren, what about you? Are you under lockdown there in Mumbai? What about, you know, other gatherings? What about moving about the city?

FRAYER: Yeah. So Modi has ruled out a national lockdown countrywide because it's just so painful for India's poor. Last spring, India's economy shrank 24% under lockdown. We actually had cases of poor migrant workers literally starving to death on the roads. So lockdowns are regional, and I am in - under lockdown now in Mumbai. It's very strict. Police patrol the streets. You can't go out for a walk.

And social media has turned into a lifeline for people. People are trying to arrange hospital beds for one another. They're trading phone numbers for doctors. I mean, I spoke a couple hours ago with a friend of mine who has COVID and is at home and has been calling dozens of doctors - dozens. Like, imagine being sick, and no one answers when you call 911, and that is the situation thousands and thousands of Indians are going through right now alone.

MARTIN: That is NPR's India correspondent, Lauren Frayer, speaking to us from under lockdown in Mumbai.

Lauren, thank you so much for your reporting.

FRAYER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.