Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. is planning post-pandemic life. In India, we’re trying not to die.

The news from the rest of the world makes us feel all the more isolated in a crisis

A relative of a covid-19 victim mourns outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday. (Ajit Solanki/AP)

NEW DELHI — On the same day about two weeks ago that I read that Americans were making post-pandemic Botox appointments, I had a fight with my father. He needed to go out for work, and I wanted him to stay home. He said he would be careful, but I knew he wouldn’t. After he left, I wondered whether I should have said something more effective, like, “I know it’s hot, but could you please start wearing a double mask?”

Two days after that, I was chatting with a friend, asking him for the fifth time in three days whether he had been able to find a hospital bed for his friend’s father. And as we talked, I glanced at the Web and read about a British politician saying people can finally start thinking about foreign travel.

Perhaps I should be happy for people in these countries who are beginning to escape the pandemic, but I just cannot bring myself to imagine doing any of the things they are talking about. The more people in the West talk about the post-pandemic future, the less recognizable the world they are discussing is to me. While Americans and Britons talk about Botox and beaches, here in India we spend each day hoping that the number of close covid-19 deaths we wake up to remains the same until we go to bed. We dread refreshing our Twitter timelines, and we fear the sound of every new notification on the phone. Two days ago, my number was four in the morning and six when I logged off at night — friends’ friends, colleagues’ friends, a former classmate’s father. We have stopped praying that we don’t catch the virus; we are waiting for our turn and preparing for when it hits us. The constant dilemma is whether to maintain distance from family members or to stay close — because you never know whether it may be the last time you see them.

In New Delhi last week, every third person of the more than 98,000 people who got tested had the virus. Across India, 300,000 fresh cases are being recorded every day, although health journalists have been screaming that the government is underreporting the numbers. Doctors are turning away patients. Migrant laborers are fleeing cities. Bodies are piling up at crematoriums — you might have to bribe someone to jump the queue if your loved one dies. The sound of the siren wails just doesn’t end. In the western state of Gujarat, people are turning to sugar-cane waste for fuel as they run out of wood to light funeral pyres.

No one knows how many people have died, but it’s definitely more than the government admits. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, the government claimed there were five covid-19 deaths over a certain period, but crematorium data suggested 137. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a tin wall was constructed around a crematorium — to prevent people from taking pictures, according to media reports.

Over the past two weeks, my Twitter timeline has turned into a covid hotline. Almost every single tweet is a desperate message from (rich and middle-class) people seeking hospital beds, oxygen, medicines or plasma. There are tweets from people amplifying the requests, independently verifying the leads, matching patients to resources, offering to clean up their homes, send them food, foster their cats or help their kids with school assignments. The saddest messages are the ones in which someone withdraws a previous request because the person who needed help is gone.

There are also tweets from doctors warning of oxygen depletion at their hospital within a few hours. Journalist Vinay Srivastava died live-tweeting the drop in his oxygen levels.

I don’t know how those without Internet access are dealing with it. Scroll reported that in some villages of Uttar Pradesh, people are dying of fever and breathlessness even before they can be tested.

Waiving vaccine patents won’t help inoculate poorer nations

So the idea of Botox or foreign travel is like a mirage. On Sunday, I saw pictures of some people dressed up for the Oscars. They are holding the Oscars? How are they able to hold the Oscars? We are trying to breathe, I thought.

Public health experts believe that two variants of the coronavirus — B.1.1.7 and B.1.617 — are behind the diabolical second wave in India. But the death toll could have been largely avoided. Oxygen production units, for which tenders were floated eight months ago, are yet to be set up. The national scientific task force on covid-19 did not meet even once during February and March. Cricket tournaments go on as usual. In the week that India crossed 300,000 new daily coronavirus infections and surpassed the number of cases the United States had in 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers held dozens of campaign rallies and road shows ahead of elections in the eastern state of West Bengal, in whose capital every other person who gets tested for the coronavirus now tests positive.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is now powered by a cult of personality

In another state ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the government organized a weeks-long religious fair where millions have gathered to take a dip into a river. Millions. The state’s chief minister said faith would protect the devotees. The Wire later reported that the fair was supposed to take place next year but was moved up for astrological reasons. The fair officially ends Friday.

The other day, as I sat beside my mother, she read out to me from a newspaper that New Zealand and Australia have begun quarantine-free travel. In Israel, they are phasing out outdoor mask mandates. I listened, silently hoping that she and I are still here together to read my next story when it gets published.

While my 30-something friends in the United States are sharing vaccine selfies, 60-year-olds here are facing difficulties getting their second doses. In Mumbai, 71 vaccination centers have shut down because of a shortage.

In praise of vaccine selfies

Yes, it’s true — Britain recently had a harsh lockdown, and the United States and Europe went through bad coronavirus spikes and dreadful economic problems last year. But no matter how bad the virus got there last year, those places will not run out of vaccine this year. And that makes all the difference.

The initial U.S. embargo on the export of vaccine raw materials may not have directly caused the current crisis in India, but it’s a bitter contrast with the way President Donald Trump threatened trade retaliation if India didn’t export hydroxychloroquine — which doesn’t even work to treat covid-19 — to the United States last year. Millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses sit idle at U.S. facilities right now while their trials get finished — Americans aren’t using them, and they could save lives here, even though we might have to pay $8 per dose in a country where the per capita monthly income is $150. The patent waiver and technology-sharing agreements that rich countries cannot seem to work out could provide life support to the teetering health-care systems in the global south.

In India, millions of people will never forget what we have gone through over the past two weeks (although those on the margins have always been used to it). We are in the deepest of the pandemic crisis. We are tired and crumbling. And it’s clearer and clearer every day when I look at news from the rest of the world that we are all alone.