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Complacency and Missteps Deepen a Covid-19 Crisis in India

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The new wave will hurt global efforts and vaccine supplies, experts say. Researchers are scrambling to assess whether new coronavirus variants are playing a role in India.

Residents preparing to receive vaccination at a triage area in New Delhi on Friday. Residents preparing to receive vaccination at a triage area in New Delhi on Friday.Credit…Rebecca Conway for The New York Times Mujib MashalHari Kumar

Published April 9, 2021Updated April 10, 2021, 4:20 a.m. ET

NEW DELHI — When the coronavirus first struck India last year, the country enforced one of the world’s strictest national lockdowns. The warning was clear: A fast spread in a population of 1.3 billion would be devastating.

Though damaging and ultimately flawed, the lockdown and other efforts appeared to work. Infections dropped and deaths remained low. Officials and the public dropped their guard. Experts warned fruitlessly that the government’s haphazard approach would bring a crisis when a new wave appeared.

Now the crisis is here.

India on Saturday reported a daily record of 145,384 new infections as Covid-19 raced out of control. Deaths, while still relatively low, are rising. Vaccinations, a mammoth task in such a large nation, are dangerously behind schedule. Hospital beds are running short.

Parts of the country are reinforcing lockdowns. Scientists are rushing to track new strains, including the more hazardous variants found in Britain and South Africa, that may be hastening the spread. But the authorities have declared contact tracing in some places to be simply impossible.

Complacency and government missteps have helped turned India from a seeming success story into one of the world’s worst-hit places, experts say. And epidemiologists warn that continuing failure in India would have global implications.

But politicians in India, still stinging from the pain of the last national lockdown, have mostly avoided major restrictions and have even returned to holding big election rallies, sending mixed messages to the public. India’s vaccine rollout was late and riddled with setbacks, despite the country’s status as a major pharmaceutical manufacturer.

ImageAmit Shah at an election rally on Saturday. Amit Shah at an election rally on Saturday.Credit…Arun Sankar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The sheer number of infections during the first wave led some to believe the worst was over. India’s youthful population, less susceptible to symptoms and death, created misperceptions about how damaging another outbreak could be.

What India needs now, epidemiologists and experts say, is concerted and consistent leadership to contain infections and buy time to make vaccinations more widely available and faster.

“Public behavior and administrative behavior matters,” said Dr. K Srinath Reddy, the chairman of Public Health Foundation of India. “If we do something for six weeks, or four weeks, and then declare victory and again open the door wide open, then we are in trouble.”

A stricken India will set back the global effort. The government has restricted vaccine exports to the country’s own needs. If inoculations don’t quicken, India would need more than two years to inoculate 70 percent of its population, said Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, with headquarters in Washington and New Delhi.

“India’s size is going to dominate the global numbers — how the world performs on Covid is going to be very dependent on how India performs on Covid,” Dr. Laxminarayan said. “If it is not over in India, it is not really over in the world.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday played down the possibility of another countrywide lockdown, instead pushing for “micro containment zones.” He said India could contain a second wave with “test, track, treat, and Covid-appropriate behavior.”

Mr. Modi’s officials have blamed mismanagement by state governments, and the population’s flouting of safety measures such as masks and social distancing, for the new wave.

Indian police officers questioning a driver and a passenger at a checkpoint in New Delhi at the start of a new curfew on Friday night.Credit…Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

The roots of India’s crisis lie in the previous one. The coronavirus hit the country hard, and India long held the second-largest number of infections after the United States. (It is now behind the United States and Brazil.) The economic blowback of the resulting lockdown was devastating.

But the numbers at the time actually understated the first wave, scientists now say, and deaths in India never matched levels of the United States or Britain. Leaders began acting as if the problem had been solved.

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