Days of record COVID-19 infections and deaths have seen India reach a grim milestone, with the country topping 18 million cases, but experts believe this figure is hiding a much worse crisis.
In the past three days India recorded one million infections, with the nation experiencing a new single-day record on Thursday after confirming 379,257 cases and 3645 deaths.
The country’s official COVID-19 figures stand at almost 18.4 million cases and 204,832 fatalities, though researchers and health workers have warned the true numbers are much higher.
Some experts have estimated the cases and deaths are likely between five and 10 times higher than what is being reported, while others believe it could be up to 30 times higher.
Scientists have been using serology surveys to get a more accurate measure of infection rates, with a previous national survey showing the number of cases in India is likely “20 to 30 times higher than what had been reported.
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Applying this to India’s latest figures raises the estimated total infections for the country to 540 million cases, more than half a billion infections.
Director of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, Ramanan Laxminarayan, told CNN it was “widely known” the case numbers and death toll were being under-reported.
“Last year we estimated that only one in about 30 infections were being caught by testing, so the reported cases are a serious underestimate of true infections,” he said.
“This time, the mortality figures are probably serious underestimates, and what we’re seeing on the ground is many more deaths than what has been officially reported.”
Crematoriums and hospitals overflowing
The situation in crematoriums across the country is also pointing to a much higher death toll than what is being officially reported.
Mass cremations are taking place in multiple cities, with the facilities being forced to spill out into parking lots and on roads in order to keep up with the constant stream of COVID-19 victims.
There have been multiple reports of discrepancies in the numbers being reported by crematoriums and the number of cremations actually taking place.
On April 17, the state of Gujarat claimed 78 COVID-19 deaths but newspapers reported 689 cremations linked to the virus took place across seven of the state’s cities that same day.
Similar complaints have also surfaced in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Indian journalist Rana Ayyub described the country’s situation as “apocalyptic”.
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Suresh Bhai, a worker at one of the large cremation grounds in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, told The New York Times he had been instructed by his bosses to write “sickness” instead of COVID-19 on the documentation handed over to families of victims.
The situation India’s hospitals is just as grim, with patients gasping for breath due to the serious undersupply of oxygen.
Families are being forced to put out plea for help on social media, begging for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders in an attempt to save their loved ones.
More than 40 countries have committed to sending vital medical aid to the country, however, the oxygen crisis is still expected to continue into mid-May.
India’s crisis a warning to the rest of the world
As the situation in India worsens, the World Health Organisation has issued a stark warning to countries thinking of easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin announced plans to lift lockdown restrictions starting May 10, including “vaccine bonus” perks for those who have had both jabs.
“Hope is returning,” Martin said.
Portugal said it would reopen its land border with Spain on Saturday.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city hopes to “fully reopen” on July 1.
And in France, cafes, cultural venues and business will reopen in several phases from next month, President Emmanuel Macron said.
WHO has warned relaxing restrictions too quickly could spark a “perfect storm” for a new wave of infections across the US and Europe.
“When personal protective measures are being relaxed, when there are mass gatherings, when there are more contagious variants and the vaccination coverage is still low this can create a perfect storm in any country,” head of WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, told reporters Thursday.
“It is very important to realise that the situation in India can happen anywhere.”
‘Double mutant’ variant blamed as vaccines ramp up
India’s second wave has been blamed on a new “double mutant” COVID-19 variant called B. 1.617, with officials suggesting continued mass gatherings across the country are partly to blame for allowing the variant to spread so quickly.
WHO recently listed the B. 1.617 mutation as a “variant of interest” but stopped short of declaring it a “variant of concern”, which would label it as more transmissible or deadly than the original.
There is also concern this variant may be combining with other easily spread variants, which could be playing a roll in the record number of cases across India.
“Indeed, studies have highlighted that the spread of the second wave has been much faster than the first,” the WHO said.
The Indian government is planning to tackle this crisis by ramping up its vaccination program, announcing vaccinations will be open to all adults from Saturday. It had previously limited shots to the over-45s and certain other groups.
However, despite the country being home to the world’s largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute of India, many states believe they won’t have enough stock to expand the rollout.
About 140 million of India’s 1.4 billion population has received a COVID-19 vaccine, with under two per cent of those receiving both doses.