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The savage death toll of India’s second wave

World Health Day concept.
Healthcare workers outfitted in personal protective equipment (PPE) in Kerala. Image credit: Javed Anees / CC0

India, embattled by its second wave of COVID-19, continues to weather staggering numbers of deaths with the emergence of a new variant and the spread of black fungus causes for concern.

The tragic toll of the second wave has manifested in the deaths of fifty medicos in a single day, reported by the Indian Medical Association (IMA). The doctors’ body said 244 doctors this year alone have succumbed to COVID-19, including fifty recorded Sunday alone. An estimated 1,000 doctors have lost their lives during the pandemic thus far.

The Times of India (ToI) reports of “entire families wiped out” by the pandemic, including in rural India despite coverage largely focused on the plight of those in the country’s cities. Per the ToI report, “the latest COVID-19 wave is now ravaging rural areas…and most villages have no way to fight the virus. 

“In Basi, about 1.5 hours from the capital New Delhi, about three-quarters of the village’s 5,400 people are sick and more than thirty have died in the past three weeks. It has no health-care facilities, no doctors and no oxygen canisters. And unlike India’s social-media literate urban population, residents can’t appeal on Twitter to an army of strangers willing to help.” 

The report quotes Sanjeev Kumar, a farming community head, who pinpointed oxygen shortages as a key contributing factor to the loss of life. “Most deaths in the village have been caused because there was no oxygen available,” he said. “The sick are being rushed to the district headquarters and those extremely sick patients have to travel about four hours.” Many do not survive the journey.

Oxygen shortages has dominated headlines in recent weeks, amidst the scourge of the second wave. As previously reported by Health Issues India, the Allahabad High Court condemned shortages of oxygen in hospitals as “not less than a genocide.” Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar said at a recent hearing “we are at pain in observing that death of COVID patients just for non-supply of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen.” 

India, of course, is no stranger to the crisis of inadequate healthcare infrastructure and poor oxygen supply. The Gorakhpur tragedy, which saw many newborns lose their lives due to lack of oxygen, looms large in recent memory as a pre-pandemic example of the human cost of such shortages.

So too is the poor state of rural healthcare infrastructure. Despite being home to the majority of the Indian population, rural India accounts for a minority of healthcare equipment and human resources. The pandemic has underscored this, with the plight of rural India going unnoticed even as cases surge and – as The Times of India noted – “entire families” are wiped out.

Going forward, the need for equitable access to healthcare is a must. India is both one nation and a nation within nations, with considerable geographical and demographic diversity. To cater the needs of all of its 1.3 billion+ people in the midst of a pandemic is not an easy task – but nor is it an insurmountable one. It requires the concerted efforts of all stakeholders, from the village to the national level, to prioritise dispensing personal protective equipment, vital medical devices and equipment, and vaccines to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that the tragedy of medical workers dying on the front line and entire families being obliterated from preventable causes comes to an end. 

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