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The Modi Surge: COVID-19 Cases Overwhelm India’s Healthcare System as Gov’t Censors Critics

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India has topped 18.3 million COVID-19 cases, after adding 1 million cases in just the past three days amid shortages in vital supplies and overwhelmed hospitals across the country. Makeshift mass cremation facilities have been set up in parks and parking lots, with rows of bodies being burned on funeral pyres. With hospitals overflowing, some patients have been turned away and left to deal with their infections on their own. “This is where Modi has led India,” says Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, who says the prime minister “clearly has no plan” for dealing with the crisis ravaging the country’s healthcare systems, particularly outside the major cities. “There has always been a crisis of healthcare in rural India, but never has it been so acutely defined as it is now,” says Ayyub.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A warning to our viewers: Footage in this segment will include highly disturbing images.

India has topped 18.3 million COVID-19 cases, after adding 1 million new cases in just the past three days. At least 205,000 deaths have been reported since the start of the pandemic. Over the past day, 380,000 new infections and more than 3,600 deaths have been reported — both record highs. Researchers say the true toll of the pandemic is likely exponentially higher.

In India’s capital, New Delhi, one COVID-19 death is being reported every four minutes. Makeshift mass cremation facilities have been set up in parks and in parking lots, with rows of bodies being burned on funeral pyres. The hospitals overwhelmed, some patients have been turned away, left to deal with their infections on their own.

NEW DELHI RESIDENT: My father is in a very critical condition. I’m getting no help. Numbers are given there, but nobody’s responding. Numbers are not reachable. Please help me. Please! My father is dying. I can’t afford another loss. Yesterday I lost my younger brother.

AMY GOODMAN: Vital supplies are coming into India from around the world, including the United States, but the country still faces dire shortages.

DR. D.S. RANA: [translated] The need for oxygen is not like that of food or water, that it can hold up for a few hours and then be given. It can’t even be held up for a few minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. D.S. Rana, head of nephrology at a New Delhi hospital.

As the surge of infections continues, health officials warn more than 8 million people are expected to vote in state elections in West Bengal and could make the region a new epicenter of the virus. Less than 2% of the Indian population of almost 1.4 billion has been fully vaccinated since the rollout started in January. Authorities will open up vaccine eligibility to all adults on May 1st. But the massive problem is the lack of vaccines.

For more from India, we go to Mumbai, where we welcome back Rana Ayyub, global opinions writer for The Washington Post. Her cover story for Time magazine is headlined “How Modi Failed Us.”

Rana, thank you so much for joining us. I know you are just in the midst of a complete catastrophe, with your own family, as well as everything that’s around you, people dying in the streets, gasping for air. Can you describe the situation for us and then put it in that political context of how this second surge, this COVID storm, 1 million people every three days being infected, happened?

RANA AYYUB: It is devastating, Amy. It is just devastating, the images that you witness outside hospitals, outside crematoriums. I mean, I can give you an example. There was a news report today that the wood that is being used to burn the funeral pyres is exhausting. There are more bodies than wood in crematoriums. I just got a video from a journalist with whom I’ve been interacting. He has sent me a video of 70 bodies just lying outside one single crematorium. And the feeling that I’m getting from speaking to a lot of people, a lot of journalists, local journalists, health officials, is that the death toll in India is anywhere between 15,000 to 10,000. That is at least 10 times higher than what the Indian government officials are saying.

Last evening, my family, which is in rural India, my maternal family in Azamgarh, seven members of my family tested positive. The doctors have told them they’re not COVID-positive. My uncle was critical last evening, as his oxygen went to 70. And we, me with my privilege and my contacts and my access, had to put out a tweet on social media to get him a bed. Now, I did manage a bed for my uncle, but that’s not — but others in the country, especially in rural India, are not fortunate. I spoke to a district magistrate of a rural town in Uttar Pradesh, and he said there are more dead bodies coming in than there are patients. There is devastation everywhere.

Yesterday, the Indian Medical Association called Narendra Modi, the prime minister, the superspreader. And this is the Indian Medical Association. The Madras High Court has called — has said that the Election Commission of India, which is basically taking orders from Narendra Modi, should be held account — should be charged for murder. This is the Madras High Court. And the highest surge in cases right now are from West Bengal, where the prime minister and the BJP decided to hold the elections in eight phases. That’s where — which is why we say that this is where Modi has led India.

And despite all of this, this country is not stopping. I mean, instead of stopping these deaths from happening, instead of stopping this devastation, this country wants to stop journalists from reporting. That’s what they’re doing right now. That’s what they’re prioritizing. They have written to Twitter to stop journalists from tweeting, and they have blocked 52 accounts on social media. Yogi Adityanath, who is the chief minister of the largest state in India, has sent out a message that no hospital should put out SOS for oxygen, and if they do this, then they will be charged. A young guy, a young boy, was begging for oxygen for his father on social media. He has been charged by Uttar Pradesh police.

That’s the level of devastation in this country. It’s exhausting. I mean, I have barely slept seven hours in the last three days. And so have — and I don’t think many of my journalist friends have slept, because every minute there is an SOS message from a relative, a friend or an acquaintance begging for a hospital bed or oxygen. There’s not a single family in India that has not heard of a death of an acquaintance or a friend or a relative or immediate relative. That’s what it is, Amy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rana, one of the reasons that this catastrophe has been brought so sharply into both global and, obviously, domestic view is that, as you say, not a single family has been unaffected — that is, rich and poor alike. But, as you also point out, what’s going on in rural India, your family included, in Azamgarh — what’s happening in rural India has not received as much attention, where there are many people dying without even knowing what illness they’re dying from. So, could you talk a little bit more about what’s happening in rural India and how this illness spread to villages across the country?

RANA AYYUB: So, Nermeen, the carnage, actually, at this point of time, which I have chosen to call a carnage, is now unfolding in rural India, because a lot of these migrant workers have traveled back from the cities to the villages, and the villagers have been sick. The reason why it is spreading is, whenever a villager — for instance, the villagers that I have spoken to in rural India, including my own family, when they went to the local doctor, he said, “You have got typhoid or malaria.” They’re not calling them — they’re not calling them COVID or coronavirus, because the people do not even know what coronavirus is. They don’t even know what a vaccine is. A lot of them don’t even know what an antigen test is. For instance, when I called my uncle and asked him to get an antigen test, he said, “What’s an antigen test?” And when he went to the doctor, the doctor said, “I’ll give you medication, and the oxygen level will kind of go up.” That’s the level of misinformation in our villages.

There are no doctors. There is no electricity. How do you expect the hospitals to function? There is devastation. And there is nothing which is being done to make sure that the virus is not spreading. In my own family, there are eight cases. There is no social distancing happening in the villages. Everybody is mingling. And there are so many hospitals that I spoke to. There is no electricity for — there’s no power. There’s power failure throughout the day, so there’s no oxygen functioning in those hospitals. People are lying on the pavements of the hospitals. And that’s where the real carnage is unfolding in India.

And nobody is paying heed to what’s happening in rural India. There are no doctors. There’s no infrastructure. And that’s something that existed, that has all this while existed between the — it’s a class problem. It’s the problem between our cities and rural India. There has always been a crisis of healthcare in rural India. But never has it been so acutely defined as it is now, from Bihar or West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh. Every day there are at least thousand deaths which are being reported from rural India, and the government is not reporting them as COVID deaths because these people have no access to testing. So, if they have no access to testing, they don’t even go to hospitals and the deaths are happening, the government counts them as regular deaths.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rana, could you talk about what the Modi government has said it will do to respond to the crisis, including, as you point out, the conspicuous absence of the most urgently needed medical supplies, including, of course, oxygen?

RANA AYYUB: Well, the Modi government — Mr. Modi, in a speech the last time, had said that he will make sure that oxygen reaches every part of the country. But you will be able to solve a problem when you acknowledge the problem. Today, the health minister of India, Mr. Harsh Vardhan, went on television and said the death — the mortality rate in India is only 0.3% and that it is much, much lower than the rest of the world. When you refuse to acknowledge a problem, when you refuse to acknowledge there are dead bodies lying all over the country, including miles away from the prime minister’s residence, how will you solve the problem?

There’s a problem of oxygen. Today, the country refused — India has refused help from the United Nations. That’s the hubris of the prime minister, because he does not want to be seen as taking help from the United Nations. And, in fact, it has been told that the new Parliament building that is being built in Delhi — prime focus will be given to building the new Parliament building. Is that our immediate priority?

So, there isn’t — even while we are talking, even when the prime minister has spoken once so far, that is when he announced that — when he took the — not a press conference. He never takes a press conference. When he did that monologue eight days ago, ever since then, there’s hardly been any communication from either the prime minister or the health minister. The home minister, in the meantime, is still campaigning and still looking at the elections. So, while we talk, the last Kumbh snan took place two days ago. While we talk, the BJP took out a rally in southern India for a municipal election, in which thousands of people participated. So what action do you expect of this prime minister, who clearly has no plan in place to look at this? International help is pouring from various countries. Canada has offered generous help. So has United States. But it’s too little, too late. We still need a lot of help. This is too little for now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, before we go, Rana, the latest information we have, journalists, about a hundred have died, half of that just in the last two weeks alone, with information that they are being cracked down on getting out information — and not just journalists — the Modi government removing tweets criticizing the handling of COVID, and a lot of these large multinational social media platforms cooperating with him to remove them.

RANA AYYUB: Absolutely. All these social media platforms have always been complicit in enabling Modi’s authoritarianism. And it is no different right now. They’re removing posts critical of Modi’s management on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

And journalists — journalists should be vaccinated, and journalists are not being vaccinated. And they’re also worried for their safety. The three journalists that I spoke, from Uttar Pradesh, they have sent me videos of the devastation. And I asked them, “Can I quote you?” because I’d rather quote them in my Washington Post piece which I’m writing on the devastation in rural India. And they said, “Please don’t do that. We will be arrested the first thing tomorrow morning. Please do not name us. We are sending these videos. If you do that, the chief minister will confiscate our property.”

That’s the priority of Yogi Adityanath, this autocrat, this dictator, who has said that anybody who reports on oxygen shortage, their property will be confiscated. So, journalists, of course, have been at the receiving end of this tirade of the government who’s trying to stop — trying to basically make every attempt to make sure that the real news does not get out of India.

AMY GOODMAN: Rana Ayyub, I want to thank you so much for joining us in this time of terrible stress and catastrophe in your country, journalist, global opinions writer for The Washington Post. We’ll link to your piece for Time magazine, “How Modi Failed Us.” And please be safe.

Next up, as pressure grows for the U.S. and wealthy countries to put an end to vaccine hoarding and share their supply with India and the rest of the world, not to mention get out of the way for companies to be able to get patent recipes so that they can make vaccines for India and other places, we’ll speak with an Indian doctor and economist. Stay with us.

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