India’s tragedy reverberates around the world

| Commentary

Last month saw another in a ghastly series of records in India’s desperate battle against COVID-19. In one week, nearly 28,000 people died; more than 2.3 million new cases were reported. After the first wave of the disease in 2020 quickly faded, the second wave has proved to be devastating, deadly, and tenacious.

COVID-19 has killed more than 270,000 Indians, infected at least 24 million, and sent hundreds of millions more into lockdown—and the true numbers are widely believed to be much higher. Parts of the healthcare system there are overwhelmed, with oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, and other basics either in short supply or nonexistent.

As Massachusetts reopens for the summer, it may be tempting not to think about horrific scenes halfway around the world. But India’s crisis is acutely personal for many in this state, which has welcomed tens of thousands of Indians in the past half century. That’s not just a statistic; it’s our DNA. We’re two of the millions of Indian immigrants and their descendants who are proud to call America home. Yet we remain deeply touched by India’s struggles: more than a dozen of our friends and relatives have caught the disease.

India’s tragedy is also the world’s tragedy. The vast Indian diaspora means no corner of the world is free from the pain being felt by families in Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune. The scale of the challenge in India reverberates around the world. This crisis is also a stark reminder that what’s happening in India could happen elsewhere—additional deadly waves are already under way in Nepal and other places on the continent. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently designated a COVID-19 variant believed to be spreading throughout India a “variant of concern,” though little is yet known about its transmissibility or virulence. Viruses do not respect borders, and the steady emergence of new and more transmissible variants shows how resilient the novel coronavirus is. As the WHO put it last fall, “None of us will be safe until everyone is safe.”

What we’re seeing in India is a reminder that the pandemic is about humanity versus the virus. What India desperately needs is a multipronged, multilateral effort to flatten the country’s curve. Three elements are essential, starting with the immediate need for basic infrastructure such as personal protective equipment, tests, beds, and acute support and supplies.

The first emergency need is for oxygen. Remarkably, just last month NASA made oxygen on Mars, even as thousands of Indians were perishing for lack of it on Earth. India’s oxygen demand has risen sevenfold; more supplies are needed, including oxygen concentrators. Consideration should be given to testing radical ideas—such as converting manufacturing plants to oxygen production or new logistics solutions to get oxygen closer to patients.

Real-time analytics to understand supply–demand mismatches of critical resources such as ICU beds can pinpoint trouble spots before they become dire or identify the need to shift resources earlier.

The other two essentials are more vaccines and support for their distribution across the subcontinent. Current global supplies are inadequate to address India’s needs.

Public announcements from various manufacturers indicate that India will rapidly scale up its vaccine production in 2021, but most doses are expected later in the year. It’s critical to speed up production while also working to end bottlenecks on raw-material supply to enable manufacturers to scale faster. It’s encouraging that governments around the world are donating extra doses. Every day matters.

What we’re seeing in India is a reminder that the pandemic is about humanity versus the virus.

Logistics experts often talk about the last-mile problem: moving goods from a transportation center to people’s homes. For COVID-19 vaccines, that means distributing a billion delicate vials across India’s three million miles of roads and getting them into people’s arms. India and its partners need to plan now for the immense logistical lift that will be required, from infrastructure development to workforce retraining and reskilling to addressing consumer education head-on. COVID-19 vaccine logistics have been a massive undertaking in Europe and the United States. Countries have devoted significant funding and effort to creating new vaccine sites (stadiums, mobile sites), delivering doses through current healthcare infrastructure (nursing homes, pharmacies, doctors’ offices), and hiring and training people (the National Guard, temporary nurses) to set up infrastructure and administer shots. Doing all of this in India’s strapped healthcare system will be daunting, though there are lessons to be learned from countries that are a few months ahead in getting shots into arms.

We are grateful that many are already donating generously, and that the United States and other countries are mobilizing to help. But much more is needed given the scale of the crisis.

Diwali, India’s festival of lights, thrills the world every year with a spectacular nationwide display of candles, lamps, and fireworks. This year Diwali falls on November 4, less than six months from now. With the world’s help, the lights can shine just as brightly as they have for the past millennia—and the untold lives saved by a global response can be present to celebrate them.

This essay originally appeared in the Boston Globe on May 17, 2021.

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