What has the Modi government done for Maharashtra

Corona disaster in India: a country is suffocating

Doctor Shreeram Kamalakar Ratnaparkhe tries Ayurveda first. When patients with a cough or fever come to his clinic on the outskirts of Pune, a metropolis in the state of Maharashtra in northwest India, the doctor measures the oxygen level in the blood. For those who still have more than 90 percent oxygen in their blood, Ratnaparkhe prescribes a mix of herbs, antibiotics and an antiviral drug. According to ancient Indian health teachings, the plant powders are said to make the body strong against the virus. If the patient's oxygen saturation is below 90 percent, the doctor has a problem.

Ratnaparkhe runs a private clinic. She specializes in treating all kinds of ailments with traditional Indian healing arts. If necessary, conventional medicine can also be used. All seven beds in his clinic have been occupied for a week. Four to five Covid sufferers a day come to his door looking for a free hospital bed in Pune. Ratnaparkhe cannot take them. The doctor cannot simply send away those who are in danger of suffocation. His colleagues are everywhere in the same situation, says Ratnaparkhe. “The intensive care units are completely full. We doctors then have to make a few calls. "

While the patient gasps, he has to wait with the doctor until an ambulance approaches the practice with a loud siren. In the best case, it is equipped with an oxygen cylinder, in the best case the ambulance rushes with the patient along the country roads to a more distant clinic in the rural area of ​​Pune. But the best case scenario is rare luck. Everywhere in India, including in Pune, life-saving oxygen is scarce. The doctor says that there are no longer any free ventilators in the city. And even the cylinders, which are opened by hand so that the patient can breathe in oxygen through a hose and a mask, have become rare.

The corona situation - a nightmare

Ratnarparkhe has only a short lunch break to report over the phone how his work, city and country have turned into a nightmare in just a few days. From November to March, he did not have a single Covid case among his patients. From mid-April onwards, a steady stream of patients with low oxygen saturation poured into the clinics. Schools and lecture halls at the university in Pune were turned into field hospitals.

According to official figures, 17.6 million people are currently infected with the corona virus across the country, and 198,000 people have died so far. For five days in a row, the number of new infections is now over 300,000 a day. For a week there have been queues in front of the crematorium in Pune, says Ratnarparkhe, there are relatives who accompany the deceased. The fire burns incessantly, devouring the dead. After all: unlike in Delhi, for example, the dead are not burned in the open air in parking lots next to the clinics.

The desperate search for oxygen for the Covid patients

Oxygen is now coming by train from the south of India. Apparently there is no longer any source for Pune in the entire north of India. The doctor speaks of a restlessness that fills the people in his city. Although the state of Maharashtra has imposed a lockdown, residents are driven to the streets. Some hoarded groceries even though the grocery stores were still open. Others were looking for some kind of casual job. And many tried to get what was missing in the clinics on the black market.

“People really want to organize something, be it oxygen or remdesivir,” says the doctor. The antiviral drug was seen as a beacon of hope in the fight against the novel virus last year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been advising against treating Covid patients with the drug since last autumn. It hardly affects the course of a disease, especially in severe cases, it said from Geneva. The doctor shares the judgment of the WHO. But he also says: "If someone came tomorrow and spoke of a new cure, people would look for it." It sounds as if an entire city is in despair.

The doctor reports that the coronavirus in the second wave has been behaving differently since mid-April than in 2020. "We can no longer say that it endangers a certain age group." Everyone fell ill, including babies. “The symptoms are more severe and the mortality rate may be higher,” says the medical professional. Could this not also be due to the collapse of the clinics? “I think both are true. We can no longer save everyone we could save. And more people die who receive the best treatment. "

The virologists have not yet made their final judgment on the Indian variant B.1.617. It has a set of 13 mutations, one of these changes can also be found in the South African and Brazilian variants. So far, the Indian mutant has not been classified as worrying. But she is under observation.

According to the director of the Center for Cell and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, Rakesh Mishra, the Indian mutant has so far spread more successfully in the country than other virus variants. "It will slowly take hold," he said. According to the latest information, B.1.617 now accounts for around 60 percent of new corona infections in India. And their spread reveals the weaknesses of a nation that is on the way to world power.

A bath in the Ganges without corona restrictions

A look back at India celebrating itself in mid-April: With the express approval of the Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 30 million Indians without corona restrictions take a ritual bath in the holy river Ganges at the Kumbh Mela festival. Men with long hair and beards splash around in the water wrapped in orange cloths or just in loincloths. Women cover their hair with silk scarves before going into hiding. Happy flag bearers can also be seen in photos. They wave India's national flag as a symbol of the unity of the people and the Hindu faith.

It is the religiously oriented clientele of the ruling right-wing national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who take a bath in the Ganges at the most important religious festival of the Hindus. The river is said to contain a drop of amrit - the nectar of immortality. In the world, the images of mask-free and spaceless goings-on have caused astonishment. The Indian government referred to brief tests of the participants. BJP politician Tirath Singh Rawat, head of government of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, said that trust in the divine overcomes fear of the virus.

India expert Christian Wagner from the Asia Research Group at the German Institute for International Politics and Security in Berlin calls Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “smart politician”. The Hindu nationalist elected to his office in 2014 knows how to ensnare the religious and unite the national camp behind him. Canceling the highest festival in Hinduism because of a virus was out of the question for Modi, says Wagner. Modi's BJP also hosted mass events during the election campaigns in important states such as West Bengal in recent weeks - as if the virus was no longer a threat as long as the Hindu nationalists were protecting the nation.

In 2020, the official death rate was very low

Virologists speculated last year about why India got through the pandemic more mildly compared to Western countries. They named the young population or the warm weather as reasons. In terms of population, India had, according to official figures, a remarkably low death rate from the novel pathogen in 2020. The Modi government claimed its success, having imposed a particularly strict lockdown on the country in spring 2020.

It was a drastic cure for India's economy that, in Wagner's opinion, the country would not survive again. But the effort seemed to have been worth it. “You saw each other on Siegerstrasse,” says Wagner.

However, experts doubt the official corona statistics. They ask why there is no more space in cemeteries in the whole country and corpses have to be cremated in the open air. States reported deaths that were only a fraction of the reported cremations. Gautam Menon of Ashoka University in the northern state of Haryana estimates that the death toll in India is up to ten times higher than officially stated.

India's third largest newspaper, The Hindu, published a report on April 26th, according to which in Modi's home state of Gujarat in western India, government deaths and statistics from clinics and crematoriums differed blatantly. A hospital in the city of Ahmedabad alone sent 125 bodies to be cremated on April 25. In all of Gujarat there are said to have been 157 corona deaths that day.

The New Delhi government reacted in its own way to the media reports. The news service Twitter bowed to government pressure and has been deleting tweets for a few days that criticize the government and question its information. The BJP head of government of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, is even calling on the authorities to confiscate the property of citizens who “poisoned the atmosphere” through statements on social media.

India's desolate health system

For India expert Christian Wagner, it is clear that the lives of most Indians depend on a desolate public health system. Contrary to the announcements by Modi that they want to improve the equipment, little has happened in the past year.

Instead of preparing for a second wave of the pandemic and, for example, boosting oxygen production, India's government exhausted its sheet as the “world's pharmacy”. The country took on a key role in the production of vaccines against the coronavirus. Similar to China, India concluded supply contracts with many developing countries for the Covax vaccine developed in India and the Astrazeneca version Covishield produced under license. India wanted to catch up in order not to be geopolitically left behind by rival China. Domestic needs appeared to be less important in the government's calculations. "The production possibilities for the domestic market have obviously been misjudged," says the expert Wagner.

As things stand, around eight percent of the population have received their first dose of vaccine. It will take time before the virus can be kept in check by inoculated herd immunity. Time that many Covid patients lack with low oxygen supplies in Pune and across India.

Some countries, including Germany, are now sending airplanes loaded with oxygen to India. Even the nuclear power Pakistan, which is hostile to India, has offered help. In Pakistan, a solidarity campaign for the battered neighbor caused a stir on social media. Christian Wagner believes that India's government would never accept oxygen from Pakistan. "That would be a national disgrace."