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US coronavirus aid to begin arriving in India amid record surge

By ERIN CUNNINGHAM AND ANTONIA NOORI FARZAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 29, 2021

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U.S. flights carrying urgent coronavirus aid for India were en route Thursday, the White House said in a statement, as health officials reported another record number of new cases across the country.

The U.S. government will deliver more than $100 million worth of supplies for overstretched hospitals and front-line health-care workers in India, the White House said late Wednesday, including oxygen support, personal protective equipment, therapeutics and rapid diagnostic tests.

India's Health Ministry on Thursday reported 379,257 new infections — a new global record — and 3,645 deaths, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to more than 18 million. The official death toll reached more than 204,000, a figure experts say is a vast undercount of virus-related deaths.

The devastating surge has strangled India's health-care infrastructure, sapping critical oxygen reserves and hospital beds and crippling a nascent vaccination campaign.

India's armed forces were setting up field hospitals and would open medical facilities to civilians "wherever possible," according to a statement Thursday from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office.

The State Department late Wednesday urged U.S. citizens to refrain from traveling to India "or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so" due to the surge in coronavirus cases.

"Access to all types of medical care is becoming severely limited ... U.S. citizens who wish to depart India should take advantage of available commercial transportation options now," the high-level travel advisory said.

In a separate warning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, "Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to India."

But even as the crisis deepened, Indian voters were forming long lines outside polling booths on Thursday to cast their ballots in the final stage of the West Bengal elections. While the worst cases have been in the north and west of the country, the eastern state of West Bengal on Thursday reported a record 17,000 new infections.

"In line with the COVID-19 protocols, I call upon people to cast their vote and enrich the festival of democracy," Modi tweeted in the morning.

Indians reported fighting online to preregister for vaccine appointments as the system opened Wednesday to all adults, with a goal of starting mass immunizations on Saturday. Slots were either quickly snapped up or the registration website repeatedly crashed, residents said.

India is one of the world's largest vaccine producers but has struggled to ramp up supplies, citing shortages of specialized material as global demand spikes. Fewer than 2 percent of India's population is fully vaccinated, compared to nearly 30 percent in the United States.

The health minister in Delhi, Satyendar Jain, said Thursday that the national capital territory does not yet have enough vaccine doses to begin inoculations on a wider scale.

"We have made requests," he said at a briefing. "We will tell you when it comes."

A government official in India's commercial capital, Mumbai, also wrote on Twitter on Thursday that mass vaccinations for adults would not begin Saturday due to supply shortages.

"Vaccination for the new age group will start only after enough vaccines are made available, and not exactly on 1st May," tweeted Ashwini Bhide, a municipal commissioner.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States has "redirected its own order of AstraZeneca manufacturing supplies to India," allowing it to produce more than 20 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine that the British-Swedish company developed with Oxford University.

About 10% of India's population of nearly 1.4 billion has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, after an immunization program targeting vulnerable populations began in January. Since then, however, the campaign has struggled to get off the ground.

In the meantime, authorities relaxed public health restrictions and greenlighted religious festivals and mass political rallies, assuming that the pandemic was under control. Those moves and the appearance of more virulent virus variants seeded outbreaks that have engulfed the nation.

"The current wave is particularly dangerous," Reuters quoted the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, as saying. "It is supremely contagious and those who are contracting it are not able to recover as swiftly. In these conditions, intensive care wards are in great demand."

"The ferocity of the second wave took everyone by surprise," K. Vijay Raghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the government, told the Indian Express.

Both pandemic fatigue and highly-infectious new variants have played a role, he said. "While we were all aware of second waves in other countries, we had vaccines at hand, and no indications from modeling exercises suggested the scale of the surge," he added.

According to a government dashboard Thursday, just six intensive care beds were available for COVID-19 patients in the capital, New Delhi, a city of more than 17 million people. Hotels and train coaches have been converted into temporary health care clinics to meet demand.

Crematoriums, some already operating 24 hours a day, have been forced to burn bodies in parking lots or set up makeshift facilities in places where death rates are high.

In an op-ed printed in the Guardian and on the Indian online news site the Wire, prizewinning Indian author Arundhati Roy slammed Modi for his handling of the pandemic.,She called it a "crime against humanity" and noted the extended campaign season in West Bengal, which allowed many more political rallies.

As criticism of India's government has reached a fever pitch, social media platforms have come under pressure for appearing to censor posts that are critical of the pandemic response.

On Wednesday, Facebook users who attempted to click on a hashtag that called for Modi's resignation were greeted with a message informing them that other posts using that hashtag were being hidden to keep the community safe, The Verge reported. Facebook said that the temporary suspension had been a "mistake."

The Washington Post's Paul Schemm in Dubai and Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.