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COVID-19 Is Now Spreading Fastest In India — Pushing Its Health System Near Collapse


It was just two months ago that India seemed to have put the coronavirus behind it. The country's caseload had dropped sharply. But since then, cases of the virus have skyrocketed. India is now where the virus is spreading fastest. It is breaking records every day for the most new infections in the world. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins me now from one of the hardest-hit cities, Mumbai.

Hey, Lauren.


KELLY: Paint me a picture of what this feels like, what it looks like. What is happening there?

FRAYER: Well, India's health system is basically collapsing. I'm scrolling through heartbreaking videos on social media of patients lying on the floor of hospital lobbies, gasping for air. People are dying in hospital parking lots, unable to get into the building. My phone is sort of beeping constantly with pleas from friends looking for hospital beds for loved ones, also oxygen tanks and antiviral drugs. So pretty much all the tools you need to fight a pandemic are now in short supply across India right now, including test kits, by the way. So I can tell you that India confirmed nearly 275,000 new infections today, but that's probably only a fraction of the true cases because people haven't even been able to get tested.

KELLY: And why? And why now? What's behind this spike? What are doctors telling you?

FRAYER: Yeah, so that's a question I asked Bhramar Mukherjee. She is a statistical modeler at the University of Michigan. She's also from India. And she says it's sort of a bunch of things all at once.

BHRAMAR MUKHERJEE: Waning immunity from past infection, lack of COVID-appropriate behavior right at the time when the country was fully reopening - but the sharp rise cannot be explained unless you incorporate the new variants of concern, which are potentially more transmissible.

FRAYER: And notice she says variants, plural.

KELLY: Yeah.

FRAYER: Scientists think that there may be, actually, several mutations of the coronavirus here. Maybe they're more transmissible. Maybe vaccines aren't as effective against them. Those are big maybes, but we're awaiting scientific data. Meanwhile, other countries just aren't taking any chances. And the U.K. actually just announced that it's putting India on its red list. That means nobody besides U.K. and Irish citizens can enter the U.K. from India, and even they have to do a mandatory hotel quarantine.

KELLY: All right. Well, so what measures is the Indian government taking to try to turn this around?

FRAYER: So we're under lockdown here in Mumbai. Also, the capital, Delhi, is under lockdown, and it's pretty strict. Like, you can't go out of your house to even go for a walk. Police are patrolling the streets. I haven't left my home in 19 days. You can get groceries delivered, but that's basically it. And there's a lot of anger that, actually, these lockdowns may be too little, too late. As recently as last weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding these huge political rallies with thousands and thousands of people during local elections in parts of India. Now he is scaling those back. But the government also allowed this big Hindu pilgrimage to go ahead on the banks of the Ganges River. And you had thousands of pilgrims testing positive there. One religious leader died, and now millions of those pilgrims are heading home from that site in northern India and possibly spreading the virus across the country.

KELLY: Oh, boy. Where do vaccinations stand? How is the rollout going?

FRAYER: Yeah, so vaccines have really been a proud spot for India. India is the biggest vaccine maker in the world. It had been exporting coronavirus vaccines. And then earlier this month, India literally ran out. The country's biggest manufacturer of vaccines, the Serum Institute of India, is asking President Biden to lift an export ban on raw materials, so India needs things like test tubes and sterile equipment from the U.S. to keep ramping up production here. India says it's doing that - ramping up supply. Tonight, it announced it's opening vaccinations to everyone over the age of 18 come May 1. Now, hopefully, there won't be more shortages then.

KELLY: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer reporting from lockdown in Mumbai.

Thank you, Lauren. Stay safe.

FRAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.