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Healthcare

India's COVID-19 Cases Break World Records 4 Days In A Row

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A new record in India. Today, the country confirmed nearly 350,000 new coronavirus cases. And with so many COVID-19 patients, India's health system is collapsing. Hospitals are overcrowded, and many have run out of medical oxygen. NPR's Lauren Frayer is there, and she has our report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In a busy intersection outside a New Delhi hospital, Rajendra Prasad describes his ordeal. His brother has COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAJENDRA PRASAD: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I can't find a hospital bed or oxygen for my brother," he told local media. "We've been going from hospital to hospital since 4 a.m. Everyone keeps saying, go here, go there. We feel like we're getting pushed around."

A day later, his brother died, one of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 across India this week that might have been prevented were it not for widespread shortages of hospital beds, oxygen, antiviral drugs.

TRUPTI GILADA: It's an absolutely helpless situation.

FRAYER: Trupti Gilada is a doctor at a hospital on the other side of the country in Mumbai. One day this week, she huddled in her car and hit record on her phone. She wept on video describing some of the patients she's been treating.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GILADA: I mean, we have a 35-year-old who's on the ventilator, and we are not able to help people now. So we really don't want any of you to be in that situation.

FRAYER: She posted this on Facebook, warning people against thinking they're, quote, "superheroes" who have immunity to this virus. You're wrong, she says. India's second wave caught everyone by surprise, including the government. Just a week ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding political rallies with thousands of attendees.

SRINATH REDDY: We had been lulled into the false belief when we saw the case counts coming down daily that we had actually escaped the pandemic.

FRAYER: Dr. Srinath Reddy is an epidemiologist and public health expert who's on a COVID task force advising the Indian government. He says that back in February, the virus seemed to have all but disappeared in India. Hospitals disassembled extra COVID wards. People thought they could go back to normal, but instead...

REDDY: The marked opening up of society - with a huge amount of travel, large gatherings, celebrations of weddings and birthday parties - it led to super-spreader events.

FRAYER: Super-spreader events like those election rallies and a giant Hindu festival with millions of people gathering on the banks of the Ganges River. Behind the scenes, new variants were lurking, Reddy says. And they spread quickly through a population in which only about 2% of people have been fully vaccinated. India is opening up vaccinations to everyone 18 and up starting next weekend. But some vaccination centers have already had to close for lack of supply. Amid shortages of so many things that could save lives, people are starting to vent anger at the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: In this video, a retired civil servant yells over the phone at a local district official. He's pleading with the official to help him find a ventilator for his sick wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I've worked for the government all my life, and now in my moment of need, you're making a fool out of me," he says, shaking. "The doctor tells me if my wife doesn't get a ventilator, anything could happen. Tell me, what should I do? Where should I go?" he says.

These same desperate questions are being asked across India as more people fall ill with COVID-19 and can't get help. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.