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India May Be Undercounting Its Massive COVID-19 Infection Numbers


The suffering in India shows no sign of letting up. Today, the government confirmed more than 400,000 new infections, nearly 4,200 deaths. And the real numbers may be even higher. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us now from Mumbai. Thanks for being with us.


SIMON: We've been watching the situation in India deteriorate for some weeks now. India is a country of such enterprise and genius. Any sign things may be improving?

FRAYER: Not really. Unfortunately, the past 24 hours have been the deadliest here since the pandemic began. But the truth is that we actually don't know the real picture because testing has slowed. We're weeks into this wave, and hospitals are still overwhelmed. We're seeing shortages of beds, medical oxygen, anti-viral drugs - I mean, pretty much everything you need to treat and help people.

SIMON: And why hasn't the federal government put a national lockdown into place?

FRAYER: Well, local lockdowns are in place. And the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are actually the latest to lockdown down. But India's economy shrank 24% last spring under a national lockdown. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn't want to repeat that. He is under pressure, though. The Lancet medical journal has an article out today calling Modi's response inexcusable, saying Modi's government is, quote, "responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe."

SIMON: That's a very grave charge. Has Prime Minister Modi or his government responded?

FRAYER: Modi is - kind of gone AWOL, actually. He last addressed the nation on television more than 2 1/2 weeks ago. I have contacted seven spokespeople for Modi's party or government in the past few days. Nobody has been available for an interview. Actually, a lot of them are sick themselves. The president of Modi's party, J.P. Nadda, did hold a press conference a few days ago about another topic, actually - state elections. But as you can imagine, he was asked about COVID. And here's what he had to say.


J P NADDA: We are fighting it. Prime Minister Modi is taking meetings, discussing, taking very proactive steps.

FRAYER: So the message from Modi's party is the prime minister is on top of this. And he's actually holding meetings, including a virtual meeting with EU leaders today.

SIMON: What about the vaccination effort? Does it - in any way helping to slow the spread of the virus?

FRAYER: Not well. A week ago, the government opened up eligibility to everyone over the age of 18. But frankly, it was more of a PR stunt. At least that's what it looked like because there just aren't enough doses to go around. India is actually the world's biggest vaccine maker. The Serum Institute of India has been having production problems. Its CEO hopped a private jet to the United Kingdom amid all of this. He's mired in disagreements with the government of India. And so the lesson here just may be about countries putting all their eggs in one basket. When it comes to vaccine production, India relied on basically one company for the vast majority of its supply. And now, you know, everyone I know has had their vaccination appointments canceled. Only around 2% of people in India have received two doses of the vaccine.

SIMON: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.