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Why India's COVID-19 Surge Could Collapse Its Health System


India reported almost 350,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday alone. That is more than any country on any day since the pandemic started. Earlier this morning, I talked to Lauren Frayer in Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: People are unable to get tested. People are dying at home, unable to get any medical care at all. A public park in Delhi today is being converted into a mass cremation ground. They're setting up funeral pyres on the grass, where kids normally play cricket.

KING: President Biden said yesterday that the U.S. will send help in the form of therapeutic medicines, test kits, ventilators and PPE. Here's the response from India, says Lauren.

FRAYER: India is the biggest vaccine-maker in the world. Earlier this month, its biggest manufacturer sent a plea to President Biden, begging him to lift an export ban on raw materials.

KING: The Biden administration had banned the export of raw materials in order to prioritize manufacturing COVID vaccines for Americans. But now, under pressure to help India, the White House says it's going to partially lift that ban. With me now, Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. He just wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling on the U.S. to help India. Dr. Jha, good morning.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

KING: India had a relatively low case count in January and in early February, and then something happened. What was it?

JHA: Yeah, we don't know for sure. There are a couple of things that we think contributed to this incredible rise in cases. One was certainly a relaxation of all public health measures. We started seeing these huge rallies, political rallies, religious gatherings. And then India dealt with what many countries have dealt with, which is - B117, the variant from the U.K., has become quite predominant. There are other variants in India. So a combination of both the virus and people's behavior has landed us here.

KING: I want to ask you about the political rallies because I remember something similar happening in the U.S. last year. Do you think the Indian government will accept any responsibility for these rallies spreading the virus?

JHA: You know, it's always hard to get politicians to accept responsibility when they make mistakes. It's undoubtedly clear that those rallies and the gatherings that kind of are associated with them, you know, were an important contributor to all of this. At this point, I doubt they're going to accept responsibility. I think what we really need to do is try to figure out how to move forward.

KING: Let's talk about moving forward. You wrote that India's health system is on the verge of collapse. What does that look like?

JHA: Well, what it looks like is, basically, hospitals that are not just full, but they're running out of basic medicine - so running out of oxygen. So people who are lucky enough to make it into the hospital then can't get the basic care. And this is just what COVID is doing and what's happening for people with COVID. Of course, the health care system exists for other things, too. If you're having a heart attack or a stroke, there are no options for you. There's no place to go. It's really having a profound impact on the health of the people.

KING: And what needs to happen?

JHA: Well, as you might imagine, for a - kind of a catastrophe of this size a lot, we do need to ramp up public health measures - so not just sort of lockdowns and restrictions, but a big increase in testing, protective equipment, everybody in India needs to be wearing a mask. We need to help the hospital systems out with oxygen and therapeutics. And then we need to ramp up vaccinations.

KING: Let's talk about some of those specifics there. So yesterday the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, promised his Indian counterpart that the U.S. would provide certain supplies, like PPE and tests. How much can the U.S. help at this point? And do other countries need to be involved here?

JHA: Yeah, so first of all, other countries are involved. You've seen the United Kingdom sending help and materials - Germany, Saudi government has done that. The U.S. can help a lot. I mean, the U.S. has a tremendous number of resources at its disposal. And so if the U.S. government really gets involved and get - you know, and decides it's going to help an ally and a fellow democracy, I think it'd make a big difference. And I was thrilled to see the president of the United States and other political leaders here step in and say they will do this.

KING: India, as you mention, is not doing great on vaccinations. It's only vaccinated about 10% of its population so far. And it is a very big population. What's happening? Is it lack of supply? Is it a different kind of bureaucratic chaos?

JHA: It's really unclear. I mean, certainly, the manufacturers are saying that it's about a lack of supply. India does have great vaccine manufacturing. So that may be a part of it. But, you know, the raw materials that they say they don't have, America is not the only source of it. There are lots of other sources. Part of the problem is that everybody in the world is trying to make vaccines, and I think that's contributing here. But either way, I hope that the new efforts by the U.S. government and others to get raw materials to India will speed up vaccinations.

KING: OK. And then I want to ask you a question that I know it is difficult to answer because we've had many public health officials tell us it is difficult to answer - how important is global herd immunity, and how do we get there? Especially - we're talking about a country with more than a billion people.

JHA: Oh, I think it is essential. If we are going to bring this pandemic to an end, if we're going to protect people around the world, there's only one path out of this pandemic that we are in, and that is getting the world vaccinated. We don't have an exact number - probably 70%, 80% of the world's population, maybe a little more, maybe a little less - some number there. But we absolutely have to do it. There's no other way the pandemic comes to an end. If we don't, we're going to be dealing with this for many, many years. So this has got to be priority No. 1.

KING: Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. Thank you as always for being with us. We appreciate it.

JHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.