The grim milestone of three million deaths worldwide from Covid-19 was reached this week. It should be a sharp rebuke to those who insist the pandemic is waning.
Across the world another 5.2 million people tested positive.
This means more people were diagnosed with coronavirus in the last seven days than in any week since the start of the pandemic
India is one of the hardest hit countries. It now stands on the brink of catastrophe with a new strain of the virus spreading quickly and leaving hospitals completely overwhelmed.
In the capital New Delhi over 25,500 cases were confirmed in a 24-hour period, but there are fewer than 100 critical care beds available in the city of more than 20 million people.
Queues of desperately sick people form outside hospitals, while patients languish in ambulances and on corridor floors.
Now many hospitals have run out of oxygen and cylinders are running scarce.
Only when the crisis reached these terrible proportions did the government announce a new lockdown in the capital.
But in a country where millions of workers live a hand to mouth existence, and where there is no social security system, lockdown will lead to huge exodus. The virus will then spread from the city to the rural areas.
The chief minister of Delhi begged people not to leave, saying, “I know when lockdowns are announced, daily-wage workers suffer and lose their jobs.
“But I appeal to them to not leave Delhi, it’s a short lockdown and we will take care of you.”
But the idea of India’s hard right BJP government “taking care” of the poorest is laughable.
Throughout India’s summer months prime minister Narendra Modi did nothing to prepare the country for the entirely predictable second wave.
No new hospitals were built or laboratories for sequencing the virus and identifying new strains, and no new social support systems were announced.
Instead thousands were crammed into international cricket tournaments, in stadiums quickly renamed after the “great leader”.
State-wide election rallies brought thousands together without social distancing measures.
Modi addressed one in West Bengal last week saying, “I can see a sea of masses. I haven’t seen a rally like this.”
And, at the BJP’s request, a Hindu festival that brings tens of thousands of devotees to the River Ganges was allowed to go ahead.
This relaxed approach, combined with a stalling vaccination programme, has been an excellent breeding ground for new variants of the virus.
More than half of cases in the western state of Maharashtra between January and March were of the new B.1.617 strain—described as the “double mutant”.
Now that strain is likely to be in the capital too.
“I believe we are seeing a stronger mutation,” said Dr Pankaj Solkanki, the medical director at the Dharamveer Solanki hospital in Delhi. “The Pandora’s Box of this disaster is open now.
“People’s condition is deteriorating much quicker, we’re seeing many more patients with a cytokine storm [a severe reaction from the immune system] and a lot of younger patients. Their symptoms are a lot more difficult to manage this time.”
Hospitals in Rio de Janeiro report they are now so desperate for basic sedatives that they have resorted to tying patients to beds to ventilate them without sedation.
But denying the lethality of Covid-19 and refusing to take appropriate measures is hardly the preserve of those two countries.
That was exactly the course that Boris Johnson’s government set itself on as the pandemic first gripped Britain last year.
While newspapers rejoiced at last week’s reopening of pubs in Britain, coronavirus strains first identified in South Africa and India were taking hold.
Together they pose a risk of infecting people—vaccinated or not.
Health officials suspect a sharp increase in infections in parts of south London are in part the result of the South African variant.
Some 23 cases involving the variant were detected in one care home among 13 staff and ten residents.
Other clusters were found in two primary schools.
More than 70 cases of the Indian variant have also been found in England and Scotland, with some not involving travel to the subcontinent.
Scientists are urgently trying to find out more about the new Indian strain, and whether it will make Covid-19 deadlier and easier to pass on.
But it is already clear that the South African strain is a real danger.
Dr Hopkins, the chief medical advisor to NHS Test and Trace, said existing vaccines were “not as good against the South African variant as they are against our own [variant] B117 at preventing infection and transmission”.
Despite the apparent threats, the government is yet to announce any new health measures in the areas most affected—except for increased testing.
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