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The lessons SA can learn from the Covid-19 situation in India

A general view of the mass cremation of those who died from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) at a crematorium in New Delhi, India. Picture: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

A general view of the mass cremation of those who died from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) at a crematorium in New Delhi, India. Picture: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Published May 3, 2021


India’s Covid-19 outbreak is a global problem and elements of their disaster can befall any number of countries, including South Africa.

Senior lecturer from the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University, Dr Jo Barnes, says the pandemic situation in India has resulted from a series of overlapping factors and South Africa should be alert to them.

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“Inadequate government response, poor co-operation of the population with common-sense precautions, denials and late preparation for disasters are elements that we are all too familiar with. South Africa should take heed,” she said.

India has recorded the world’s sharpest spike in coronavirus infections this month, and reported more than 400 000 new cases on Saturday, a global record.

The country has recorded over 19.6 million cases and 216 000 deaths.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement last week that the situation in India “is beyond heartbreaking”.

Here are some of the lessons South Africa can learn from the outbreak in India:

Politicians who downplayed the pandemic

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Health Minister Harsh Vardhan spoke during a Delhi Medical Association Conference in March and said that India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

"Unlike most other countries, we have a steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines that are safe with proven immunogenicity and efficacy," he said.

While politicians were celebrating their Covid-19 pandemic response success, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was campaigning for the upcoming election and boasted that he had never seen such crowds at election rallies.

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“A pandemic cruelly shows up any lack of consensus and cohesion in management and governance. It is hard to banish religious festivals, for instance, if political rallies are allowed. So governments facing internal strife and discord will fare far worse than other countries where the government is trusted and the control measures largely obeyed,” said Barnes.

Large social gatherings

The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism and runs through April. It was estimated that 25 million pilgrims gathered to bathe in the Ganges River.

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Barnes said that large gatherings, including festivals, overcrowded malls and sports matches, without adequate social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitising, could be a contributing factor to the alarmingly increasing number of cases.

“Politicians who did not want the election campaigns hampered, and religious figures who did not want religious freedoms curtailed, encouraged the widespread belief that India has avoided a catastrophe and is safe,” said Barnes.

India’s second wave driven by the B.1.617 variant

Several scientists suspect that the second wave in India is being driven by the appearance of a variant of the virus listed as B.1.617.

“The longer this explosive stage of the pandemic in India is raging out of control with slow implementation of vaccination, the higher the risk that several other dangerous variants will appear,” said Barnes.

The variant has also been discovered in 17 other countries, including Uganda, Germany, the UK and US.

“What happens in India will find its way to other countries, some of which may be equally unable to cope with the deluge of cases,” she said.

Shortage of oxygen

India has alarmingly low stocks of oxygen to treat seriously ill Covid-19 patients. Oxygen therapy is crucial for patients with hypoxaemia, which is when oxygen levels in the blood are too low.

“Reports abound of patients who died due to low oxygen pressure or not receiving oxygen that they desperately needed, as well as sick patients being turned away in their thousands from medical facilities because there is no space to accommodate them and no oxygen or antiviral medication to treat them,” said Barnes.

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