If the country of India had a medical chart, it would take just a quick glance to know you had a seriously ill patient. COVID-19 has dropped anchor on the world’s second largest population and the impact is devastating. As a new week of battle rages on against an invisible enemy, India is looking to the outside for help and the clock is running.
Medicine to fight the virus is scarce. Basic necessities to combat this scourge are in short supply or at near exhaustion. Hospital space for the seriously ill has or soon will reach its limit. Oxygen, what little there is, is being rationed. If that weren’t sobering enough, across the nation funeral pyres burn around the clock. In the country’s largest cities, cemeteries are reaching capacity. Another problem, graveyard workers, already working seven days a week, are becoming sick, but bodies continue arriving.
India had managed to control the virus through the winter but, like a tide, the virus has returned---and surged. A second wave has reached and dwarfed its predecessor. The country has now exceeded its previous record. New cases have topped 400,000 in a single day with more than 4,000 deaths in the same period.
It is estimated that 21 million Indians have been infected and that, say health care experts, may be a serious undercount. Without a quick and massive influx of vaccine and other supplies from the outside, stabilizing the country’s health will be a monumental challenge. The virus has already killed more than 250,000 and the trajectory is headed skyward.
For scores of Indian-American physicians working in U.S. hospitals, including many working to control this country’s COVID-19 pandemic, news reports coming out of India are devastating, delivering both concern and heartbreak.
“A lot of families are highly connected,” said Dr. Anuj Mehta, a Denver Health and Hospitals Pulmonary and Critical Health Physician. While Mehta is American-born, he remains connected to extended family living in India. While the internet has made staying in touch easier, there remains an eleven hour time zone challenge. Timing one’s call is important.
Though India’s numbers may differ from America’s, the emotional impact of the virus is not unlike this country’s. “Families have not been able to get together,” he said. Celebrating weddings and births, even mourning the loss of loved ones, has had to be postponed.
Mehta, along with the rest of the world, has watched India’s challenges mount. The first wave of the virus, while not negligible, was scant in a country of nearly 1.5 billion. “Initially,” he said, “it was ten thousand (cases) a day.” Like other countries that may have inspired a false confidence. “Cities opened up; work resumed. There was social distancing, mask wearing. Things were more lax.”
Similarly, said Mehta, “pandemic fatigue,” set in. India became accustomed to the virus and grew complacent. Religious holidays---and their accompanying large gatherings---were celebrated. Add to that national elections in the world’s largest democracy. It was, said Mehta, “the perfect storm” and prelude to the second wave.
In Pueblo, one of Colorado’s hot zones for COVID-19, Dr. Sandeep Vijan wages a daily battle against the virus at the city’s Parkview Hospital. At the same time, he deals with the emotions of family caught in the virus’s crossfire on the other side of the world. “As a physician,” said the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, “I have had a front-row seat to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Just months ago, Vijan’s hospital was nearly overwhelmed with COVID patients pushing the facility’s limits to near capacity. Things have stabilized but there is no assurance they won’t return to last winter’s levels.
Since the virus changed the world, Vijan has “seen patients, healthcare providers and communities suffer…it is an indiscriminate killer,” he said. But as indifferent as a phantom virus can be, it takes on a different light when it invades a family structure.
Vijan’s parents live in India. His concern has somewhat abated because they have both been vaccinated. But he aches for the country so deeply mired in peril. “It is emotionally exhausting to watch from afar,” he said. But his worry extends beyond national borders. India, he said, “is becoming a cautionary tale.” “The United States must heed this warning. Without universal engagement with COVID-19, we could easily be next.”
In Denver, Dr. Mehta has much the same concern as his Pueblo counterpart. “It’s easy to think that India is a world away.” Practically speaking, said the pulmonary healthcare specialist, “it has the potential to show up in the U.S.” He also cautioned against what has already begun appearing not only in faraway places, but in Colorado, as well. “We also know that variants are appearing.”
The war footing on which the virus has placed both countries has created different battle fronts. In India, despite it being a pharmaceutical manufacturing hub, vaccines remain in short supply with people lining up to get their shots. By contrast, the U.S. has reached the point of finally having a surplus of vaccines, but there lingers a vaccine hesitancy keeping millions from getting inoculated. In either case, there may be consequences to pay.
Dr. Mehta cautions that these two variables pose serious risks. Just a quick look back proves it, he said. A once obscure virus emanating out of Wuhan, China, was once thought a regional health issue. After nearly four million COVID-19 deaths and 158 million infections worldwide, the planet has come to know that it was anything but regional. The Coronavirus, second only in scope to the Great Influenza a century earlier, travels like the wind. Not only that, but it is also capable of creating variants, some of which are already appearing. “We can’t ignore what is happening there,” said Mehta. This virus neither knows nor respects borders.