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The Latest On Vaccine-Strapped India COVID-19 Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back now to India, which once again shattered the record for new coronavirus cases in a single day, reporting more than 400,000 new cases today. And the true numbers may be even higher because test kits are in short supply. So are hospital beds, medical oxygen and antiviral drugs. The government there is rushing to try to get vaccines in people's arms. And today, it opened up eligibility to anybody over 18 years old. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai and is with us now. Lauren, thanks so much for joining us once again.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As I think many people know by now, India is being pummeled by this new coronavirus wave. Today, all adults there are finally eligible for vaccination. Are there enough shots to go around?

FRAYER: No, frankly, not at all. Several states have closed their vaccination centers for lack of supply. Where I am here in Mumbai, all the vaccine centers are closed for three days. Everybody had their appointments canceled. And then this morning, six centers here opened up unexpectedly. And it set off this, like, mad dash. Like, people were running down to the hospital. The police were blocking this rush. And there is a sense of urgency because of these ghastly scenes that we're seeing play out across the country. Today, 18 COVID patients died in an overcrowded hospital that caught fire. Patients are dying still in parking lots of other hospitals. They're dying at home, unable to get care.

MARTIN: You know, Lauren, when we talked last week, you talked about some of these just truly desperate scenes, people calling the equivalent of 911, nobody answering. Since then, the U.S. and other countries have said that they're sending medical equipment and oxygen to India. Is there any sign of that? Do you see whether that's helping at all?

FRAYER: I mean, we are seeing huge packages land at Delhi's airport. It is a massive relief effort. But India has supply chain problems, and aid isn't always getting to the people who need it, or at least not quickly enough.

MARTIN: Well, how are people coping with this?

FRAYER: You know, you and I talked last week, and I said I thought it couldn't get worse. And I was wrong. Then, I had only one friend who was ill and unable to get care and texting me, you know, asking for help. Now I have three friends in this situation, and we're texting. But, you know, I fear that moment when I don't get the double check, the blue check that they have seen my message, that they're still on the other end of the line.

And in absence of a robust government response, people are helping one another, like, via social media. I mean, there are tweets, like, oh, this person needs an oxygen cylinder in this neighborhood. Like, who can work the phones for this person? These are strangers. And they're responding to one another in a lot of ways faster than the government.

MARTIN: Why wasn't the government more prepared? And do - are people thinking about that?

FRAYER: Yeah, there's real anger here because until recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was paying more attention to local elections. He was holding these political rallies with thousands of people rather than making sure that these hospitals had what they needed. And there's been a sense of exceptionalism here. Like, there was something special about India, that it had avoided the worst of COVID. And people wanted to believe that. I mean, the government wanted to believe that. Even now, with the government busy with this crisis, it's asking Twitter and Facebook to remove posts that are critical of Modi. I mean, India wants to see itself as a rising power. It does not want to become infamous as a country that was not able to save its own people.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I just have to ask about medical personnel. I can't imagine what medical personnel there are going through, seeing people die before their eyes for want of supplies that are readily available elsewhere in the world.

FRAYER: Yeah, and now we know what it takes to beat this virus. It's not always possible, right? But we know the tools that we need. And so doctors are frustrated because they can't get that oxygen. They can't get those tools. And when I'm talking about this flood of videos and pleas on social media, these are coming from medical professionals, too. I mean, I just saw a video of a doctor who came out of her hospital and sat in her car and cried and - on Facebook Live, you know? Like, the strain on the medical staff here - you know, you're seeing five, 10 times as many patients. But, you know, you have the same-size staff there. And they are working nonstop to try to, you know, save their countrymen here.

MARTIN: That is NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Lauren, thank you so much for talking to us.

FRAYER: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.