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India's Health Care System Hits Breaking Point As COVID-19 Rages On


It is hard to get hold of the tragedy now unfolding in India. The nation of nearly 1.4 billion people today recorded over 401,000 cases of the coronavirus. The official death toll has exceeded 211,000. But with the scarcity of resources and testing, it is widely believed that both infection and fatality numbers are higher than what's been officially reported - much higher. The country's health care system is at a breaking point, and for the second time in 10 days, a hospital ward caught fire. Eighteen patients in the COVID ward were killed.

Rana Ayyub is a journalist based in Mumbai, who joins us now. Rana, thanks so much for being with us.

RANA AYYUB: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I can't think of a better way of beginning than to ask what is it like to be in India now?

AYYUB: Well, Scott, every day is a nightmare. There is not a single family in India that has been unaffected by COVID. I lost somebody in my family last night. I've lost four friends in the span of two weeks. It is devastating. And we are still talking about urban cities in India. The devastation in rural India - I mean, it's more a carnage that is unfolding in the country. The official figures say that it is 2,000 deaths a day, but unofficial figures based on journalistic reports and based on my conversations with various health officials have suggested the death toll is at least 10 times higher. The cremation grounds in India are so full that we are running out of wood for the fires. There are more bodies than wood for the fires. People are cremating their loved ones on the streets as there is no place to cremate them.

SIMON: You wrote in Time magazine that people are dying in plain sight. That's the case?

AYYUB: Yes, it is. I mean, I think as a journalist in the last 15 years, I thought I had witnessed the worst in the country from sectarian violence to genocide to extrajudicial murders. But nobody, no journalist, no citizen has ever been prepared for something like this. Our hospitals - I have had doctors coming and hugging me tight, saying, ma'am, we can't take this anymore. There are junior doctors who are crying, who are just crying while talking to me.

The other day, I just met a patient, this woman outside the hospital, and she was numb. And I said - and I kept asking her, what was it, and, you know, if she could talk to me, and then she said she was waiting for an oxygen bed for her husband. And she got him three days earlier, and he couldn't get a bed. And now she was waiting for his dead body.

This is the story of every space that we occupy. In the own complex where I'm staying, every house has (unintelligible) with positive patients. I think everybody is just waiting. I mean, we just don't want to take our phone calls because it feels like you don't know who's dead. Every call is an SOS call for oxygen. People are begging each other for oxygen and hospital beds. And all through this, we have a regime, the Modi government, that has criminally abdicated its responsibility. And it just doesn't feel like we are living in a democracy, we are living in - with a regime that really cares for its citizens.

SIMON: A number of nations in the world, including the United States, have pledged to ship medical and vaccination supplies. Does this make even a dent?

AYYUB: Well, it's too little too late, Scott. Of course, it will be of help, but it is still too little for a country of this size and magnitude of that of India. And then India has refused help from the United Nations, saying that we are self-sufficient. But I think that's such a terrible miscalculation. India needs a lot more international help because there is just no oxygen.

I was just talking to my uncle, who's critical, and the person who was with him. They said for the last one hour, there's no oxygen in the hospital, and there are 25 patients in the ICU, and they're scrambling, and they might just die. So that is the state. And if India's saying it's self-sufficient, I don't know how have they reached this kind of an estimate. We really need international help.

For instance, when I have called the laboratory where the testing has been - has happened, people have not been able to test for the last two weeks because the raw material which is required for testing is not available. We have run short of vaccines. From today onwards, the government said that we will start vaccinating those who are upward 18 years of age. But what's the point of announcing this when we have run short of vaccines completely?

I really wish I could explain this better, Scott, but I'm at loss of words. If I could just say this. I really wish the international community turns its attention to India because I cannot stress the magnitude of the problem that we in India are facing right now.

SIMON: Rana Ayyub, journalist in Mumbai, you found the words very well. Thank you very much for being with us.

AYYUB: Thank you, Scott. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 1, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous introduction on this story misspelled Rana Ayyub's last name as Ayyoub.