'Nothing short of catastrophe': Inside India's COVID nightmare

A Pillar Interview

While many developed nations are beginning to see significant declines in COVID-19 cases and deaths, India for over a month has faced a “double mutant” variant of the coronavirus, leading to a massive new wave of infections.

With shortages of oxygen, drugs, and hospital beds compounding an already devastating plight, the country’s official death toll has topped 250,000. More than 4,000 deaths are being reported daily. However, many experts believe the true death toll is far higher - possibly two to five times as high as the official statistics - as administrative shortcomings and unreported deaths could be leading to massive undercounting.

Marc D’Silva, Catholic Relief Services’ regional director for Asia, told The Pillar that in addition to the deaths caused by the virus, some 70 million people are facing unemployment as a result of the pandemic, prompting a serious food insecurity crisis.

The Pillar talked to D’Silva this week about the situation in India, the long-term implications of the current COVID surge, and the work of Catholic Relief Services to provide both immediate and continuing aid. The interview is below.

The Pillar: What is the situation on the ground in India? How are people responding? 

D’Silva: What’s happening in India is nothing short of catastrophe. Even outside of big cities like Delhi, you’re seeing a health care system in crisis. Hospitals have become so overburdened that patients are dying of COVID-19 while waiting for treatment. Across the country, medicine is in short supply. So too are doctors, nurses and the medical equipment needed to care for people suffering from such a deadly disease in such massive numbers.  

No one on our staff has been spared the impacts of this virus. Everyone’s desperate for the situation to improve. As a colleague noted, ‘People are gripped by fear as they hear news of lost relatives and friends, wondering, ‘Will my family be next?’

The Pillar: Scientists have identified a ‘double mutant’ COVID variant that is driving the current wave of infections. What other factors are contributing to create the catastrophic situation in India?

D’Silva: To be sure, the situation in India is complex, and its causes are varied. To address the crisis quickly, people need to be vaccinated as soon as they have the opportunity. We are promoting public health messaging to encourage vaccination, social distancing and other precautions to slow transmission. At this stage we are most concerned about the health care system, which is overwhelmed and in need of support. Bringing numbers down will allow hospitals to provide a higher level of care.

The Pillar: Some data reports suggest the current wave in India may be reaching a peak. Are people hopeful? 

D’Silva: From a CRS perspective, we always find reasons to be hopeful. We have hope in the scientific breakthroughs of the last year. We have hope in vaccines, which offer robust protection against COVID-19 and its variants. And we have hope in the response of the international community, which has stepped up to offer life-saving equipment and medicine. We know that as vaccines become more widely available, the government infrastructure can manage vaccine registration, inoculation drives, and tracking. 

However, the average person in India is far from hopeful.

There is a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety about the spread of the virus. People are terrified for family members and friends. And people worry whether they’ll get sick. They’ve read the news and see people being denied hospital care. It’s a scary time. 

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The Pillar: What are the greatest needs in India right now? How can the global Church and the international community help those who are suffering?

D’Silva: The immediate needs in India include medicine, medical supplies, and medical staff. They also include food and everyday supplies for those impacted by the lockdowns. According to recent reports, upwards of 70 million people in India have been left jobless due to the pandemic. As a result, growing food insecurity is a big problem. To address this problem, CRS support will go toward providing vulnerable families with cash or vouchers to purchase food and living supplies. 

The light in this story is that we’ve seen countries in other parts of the world, such as the U.S., emerge from their darkest hours. We’ve seen how widespread vaccinations can bring back a much-needed sense of normalcy to people’s everyday lives. 

For those who have made it through the worst of the pandemic, our hope is that they’ll stand in solidarity with those still in crisis. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we’re all interconnected. As Pope Francis has said, 'This is not a time for indifference, because the whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic.' 

For those who want to donate to our COVID-19 relief efforts, they can visit our donation page here. For those who want to find out more about what CRS is doing to help communities impacted by COVID-19, they can visit our crisis watch page here

As global citizens and as Catholics, we must all be pushing world leaders for vaccine equity. And we must give generously. The government’s medical system in India is large, but the COVID surge dwarfs anything the world has seen in modern history. The Catholic Health Association of India, the country’s second-largest healthcare institution after the government, is already providing increased support. The staff are ready and willing to take on more patients, source more PPE, and to be the hands and feet of Jesus during people’s most desperate days.

The Pillar: What are the global implications of this type of major COVID surge in a country like India? Are there concerns that similar surges could be seen elsewhere?

D’Silva: Our message since the beginning days of this pandemic has been the same—to end this pandemic anywhere, we must end it everywhere. The virus spreads regardless of manmade borders. The breakneck speed of the proliferation of COVID-19 variants highlights the risk to global health security should we fail to protect entire populations. We’re already seeing the virus rapidly spread into neighboring countries like Nepal. The longer it takes us to ramp up vaccinations in vulnerable countries, the longer this virus will continue to wreak havoc. 

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The Pillar: Besides the devastating death count, what other long-term effects might people in India see as a result of the pandemic?

D’Silva: It’s clear we need to strengthen India’s healthcare system so it can withstand future pandemics. It’s also clear the secondary impacts of the virus could be equally devastating to the country’s most vulnerable populations. It’s always the poor who suffer the most during a national crisis.

People have lost jobs and income. Children have lost parents. The economic hit to poor families will long outlast the current peak medical crisis.

The Pillar: Is Catholic Relief Services doing any relief work right now in India? Looking long-term, what kind of recovery efforts will be needed? Are there development efforts that could prevent something similar from happening in the future? 

D’Silva: CRS is supporting more than 50 hospitals in smaller cities through Catholic Health Association India (CHAI). That collaboration with CHAI will provide medical services to more than 100,000 COVID patients. CRS support to CHAI includes the provision of personal protective equipment kits; medical supplies and disinfectants; staff surge and volunteer support; food for recovering patients; and psychosocial support for health care workers. In addition, CRS is supporting Caritas India and local government partners to help frontline health workers facilitate vaccine registration and share COVID-19 public health messages. Our partnership with Caritas will also provide emergency food and basic needs for 25,000 vulnerable people.

In the long-term, we see a threefold need – first, to continue investing in the Catholic health system in India to complement the government system, including in underserved communities. Second, the government should continue decentralizing health services to reach people where they are.

We’ve seen this succeed through our long-term programming that supports community-level health outreach workers who provide maternal childcare in rural villages. This type of community-based healthcare, which links back to larger medical facilities when needed, is a cornerstone for managing diseases, and for improved general health and well-being of families. And finally, India must account for the long-term toll this crisis will take on the well-being of families and children.

With children losing one or both parents, people mourning the loss of relatives, and families on the margins losing breadwinners and caregivers – the strain on the social fabric of communities will be significant. Government and civil society must come together to help families build new futures.