NEW DELHI (AP) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced mounting pressure on Friday to impose a strict nationwide lockdown, despite the economic pain it will bring as a surprising increase in coronavirus cases has hit the country’s health system shows no signs of slowing down.
Many medical experts, opposition leaders and even Supreme Court justices are calling for national restrictions, arguing that a patchwork of state rules is insufficient to stem the rise in infections.
Indian TV stations are showing footage of patients lying on stretchers outside hospitals awaiting admission, with hospital beds and critical oxygen in short supply. People infected with COVID-19 in villages are treated in makeshift outdoor clinics, with intravenous drops hanging from trees.
As deaths skyrocket, crematoriums and cemeteries have been inundated with corpses, and loved ones often wait hours to perform final rites for loved ones.
The situation is so dire that among those calling for a strict lockdown, there are traders who know their businesses will be affected but see no other way out.
“Only if our health is good can we win,” said Aruna Ramjee, florist from Bengaluru town in southern India. “The lockdown will help everyone, and the spread of the coronavirus will also decrease.”
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The alarming picture has captured the world’s attention, just as many developed countries are seeing vaccinations reduce infections and are starting to open up. India’s surge has served as a warning to other countries with fragile health systems – and also weighed heavily on global efforts to end the pandemic because the country is a major producer of vaccines but has been forced to delay vaccine exports.
Infections have spiked in India since February in a disastrous turn blamed on more contagious variants as well as government decisions to allow massive crowds to assemble for religious festivals and political rallies. India reported a new daily record of 414,188 confirmed cases and 3,915 additional deaths on Friday. The official daily tally of deaths has remained above 3,000 over the past 10 days.
This brings the total to more than 21.4 million COVID-19 infections and more than 234,000 deaths. Experts say even these dramatic tolls are underestimated.
Over the past month, nearly a dozen of India’s 28 federal states have announced some restrictions, but they do not match a nationwide lockdown imposed last year, which experts attribute to helping contain the virus for a long time. time. The measures, which lasted for two months, included stay-at-home orders, a ban on international and domestic flights and a suspension of passenger service on the country’s extensive rail network.
The government provided free wheat, rice and lentils to the poorest for nearly a year along with small cash payments, while Modi also pledged an economic relief program of more than $ 260 billion. But the lockdown, imposed with four hours’ notice, also stranded tens of millions of migrant workers who found themselves out of work and fled to villages, many of whom died en route.
National restrictions caused the economy to contract 23% in the second quarter of last year, although a strong recovery was underway before infections skyrocketed recently.
Some who remember last year’s ordeal remain against a full lockdown.
“If I had to choose between dying of the virus and starving, I would choose the virus,” said Shyam Mishra, a construction worker who was already forced to change jobs and start selling vegetables when a lockdown hit. was imposed on the capital, New Delhi.
Modi has so far left the responsibility of tackling the virus in this current wave of ill-equipped state governments and has been accused of doing too little. His government replied that it was doing all it could, in the midst of a “once in a century crisis.”
In the midst of an oxygen shortage, the Supreme Court intervened. She ordered the federal government to increase the supply of medical oxygen in New Delhi after 12 COVID-19 patients died last week after a hospital ran out of supplies for 80 minutes.
Three judges called on the government this week to impose a lockdown, including a ban on mass gatherings, in “the interest of public welfare.”
Dr Randeep Guleria, a government health expert, said he believed a full lockdown was needed like last year, especially in areas where more than 10% of those tested contracted COVID-19 .
Rahul Gandhi, an opposition party leader in Congress, in a letter to Modi on Friday, also called for a total lockdown and government support to feed the poor, warning that “the human cost will lead to many other tragic consequences for our country. people.
As the world watches India with concern, some outside its borders have joined the calls. Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease specialist in the United States, has suggested that a complete shutdown in India may be necessary for two to four weeks.
“As soon as the cases start to decrease, you can vaccinate more people and get ahead of the trajectory of the pandemic epidemic,” Fauci said in an interview with Indian news channel CNN News18 on Thursday.
Still, Modi’s policy of selected lockdowns is supported by some experts, including Vineeta Bal, a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology. She said different states have different needs and local specificities must be taken into account for any policy to work.
In most cases, in places with good health infrastructure and expertise, localized restrictions at the state or even district level are a better way to curb the spread of infections, said. Ball. “Central locking will just be inappropriate,” she said.
Srinath Reddy, chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private consulting firm, acknowledged that the intensity of the pandemic was different in each state, but said that a “coordinated nationwide strategy Was still needed.
According to Reddy, decisions should be based on local conditions but should be closely coordinated, “like an orchestra playing the same score but with different instruments.”