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U.S. Sending Emergency Assistance As COVID-19 Overwhelms India's Health System

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As the coronavirus rampages through India, funeral pyres burn non-stop to cremate the dead. For five days straight, India has set the world record for the highest daily caseload, and it's crushing India's health system. Hospital beds are in short supply - same goes for antiviral drugs and supplemental oxygen. Countries around the world are rushing to help, but the U.S. has been slow to respond to aid requests. When President Biden and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke today, Biden pledged his support. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai and joins us now.

And, Lauren, a tough description at the top there - can you describe what it's like where you are?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, it's just a tragedy all around, really. India's hospitals across the country are overcrowded. People are dying in hospital parking lots, waiting to get in. People are also dying at home, unable to get any medical care at all. India confirmed more than 350,000 new infections today, but, you know, the real numbers could be just, like, 10 times higher even because people aren't able to get tested. And the same with deaths - funeral homes are just overwhelmed. Public parks - like, parks with playgrounds are being turned into mass cremation grounds. It seems, like, from an apocalypse, really. And even patients who manage to get care are dying in hospitals as hospitals run out of oxygen, and a lot of those deaths could have been prevented if hospitals had been better equipped for this.

CORNISH: Why weren't they better prepared, I mean, a year into this pandemic?

FRAYER: Yeah, so part of it is India has always just spent a smaller percentage of its GDP on health than other countries. But part of it is also that nobody saw this wave coming. Two months ago, cases were at record lows here, and everything kind of went back to normal. Like, all of these extra COVID wards were closed for lack of patients. But, of course, we know now the virus was not gone. And scientists are scrambling to sequence new variants that they've discovered here, variants that appear to be spreading at a rate just unseen anywhere else in the world.

CORNISH: What is the Indian government's response right now?

FRAYER: So the Indian government has been slow to act. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding political rallies until last week - I mean, rallies with thousands and thousands of attendees, no social distancing. The Indian government has also asked Twitter to block some tweets that have been critical of the government's COVID response. Today, the government called up retired military doctors, asking them to return to service. It has also outlawed the use of oxygen for any industry except for medical purposes.

Different states in India are imposing lockdowns. I'm under lockdown right now here in Mumbai. These are streets that are normally, like, packed with rickshaws. Like, I have to wear earplugs in the streets. It's such a chaotic, you know, cacophony of life in the streets of India. And now it's silent, and it's eerie. And police are patrolling. You're not allowed to go out for a jog. I mean, I never thought India would look like this.

CORNISH: We mentioned the meeting between Biden and Modi. Can you talk about what the U.S. has been saying so far?

FRAYER: Yeah, so a lot of countries are helping India, including the U.S. The U.S. is just one among many. And actually, earlier than the U.S. came aid from Russia, from Singapore, from Saudi Arabia. They were sending ventilators and oxygen. Supplies are now coming from Europe and Britain. But as you mentioned, President Biden and Prime Minister Modi did talk this evening, and the U.S. is now sending oxygen, sending vaccine raw materials, rapid testing kits, PPE. The Department of Defense is even involved in this.

And separately, the U.S. is also releasing up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Now, that's the vaccine most used in India. It hasn't been approved in the U.S., but the U.S. nevertheless started making some doses. And so it is - the U.S. is going to release those to many countries, not just India. But I have to say there's some anger here in India and also among Indian Americans that this U.S. help may not have come quick enough. You know, India's enemy, Pakistan, pledged aid before the U.S. did. And the U.S.-India relationship is important to Washington. But some Indians have felt that in their hour of need, this close partner, the U.S., was slow to help.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

Thank you for your reporting.

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