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India Coronavirus Numbers Remain Low, But Dearth Of Hospital Facilities Causes Worry

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In India, the number of reported coronavirus cases is low - fewer than a thousand in a country of more than 1.3 billion people. But doctors there are worried. India has a fraction of the hospital beds and ventilators of developed countries, which means the virus could be especially deadly there. NPR's Lauren Frayer sent us this report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A group of Indian doctors posted a video on social media of themselves singing patriotic songs in hazmat suits and masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Hindi).

FRAYER: They're trying to raise their colleagues' spirits ahead of what could be a very sobering task. India has less than 40,000 ventilators. That's a quarter of the number the U.S. has. But India has nearly five times as many people. In rural areas, India has one doctor for more than 10,000 people. The World Health Organization recommends 10 times that. So if coronavirus explodes in India, those doctors could get very busy very quickly.

JOHN VICTOR PETER: Our biggest fears are that our health care workers could fall sick and that we may run out of essential supplies.

FRAYER: Dr. John Victor Peter is head of Christian Medical College Vellore in southern India. It's one of India's best nonprofit hospital chains, but it has only a thousand coronavirus testing kits. Many of the more bare-bones government hospitals have none. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put the country under lockdown and pledged $2 billion to improve Indian hospitals, but the question is whether that's enough. Dr. Peter says his hospital desperately needs personal protective equipment - masks, gowns, gloves. But, he says...

PETER: What is available is over 10 times the usual cost. A whole lot of staff have volunteered to make masks, visors and hazmat suits.

FRAYER: Some hospitals are improvising their own concoctions of hand sanitizer. Elective surgeries are canceled and operating rooms cleared out. It's like the calm before the storm, says Adarsh Pratap Singh, a surgeon at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

ADARSH PRATAP SINGH: I have some theory about it, but it is the time where I have to give my hundred percent. It is the situation similar to the war.

FRAYER: He says he and his fellow doctors think of themselves as, quote, "frontline warriors" bracing for how bad it could get in India.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUSSEF DAYES AND ALFA MIST'S "LOVE IS THE MESSAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.