India thought it had herd immunity from COVID — until it didn’t

Country’s crisis points to importance of getting vaccinated


Just about six months ago, I was listening to experts trying to decipher the record success of India’s COVID-19 strategies. At the time, cousins, aunts and nieces in India were posting What’s App messages justifiably proud of the 64 million doses of India-manufactured vaccines being shipped to 86 countries including the U.K., Canada, Brazil and Mexico.

Today, few countries are in as miserable a pandemic situation as India. Though per capita analysis indicates that Hungary and Brazil are worse off, the volume of cases in India is so large and so dire as to render the per capita figures less than important.

To date, the country has recorded more than 23.6 million confirmed infections and at least 258,000 deaths. It’s still below America’s infection and death rate, at over 33 million infections and 594,000 deaths. Yet, day by day, it doesn’t seem as though India has a handle on the pandemic, with its beleaguered intensive care units, lack of supplies and vaccine shortage.

The situation is further complicated by inaccurate data. It is being reported that the infection and death rates in India are far higher than what the government claims. In order to get some accuracy, journalists are stationing themselves at crematoriums and counting dead bodies.

Dr. Rosemarie De Souza, a physician working in Mumbai, performed a study examining 689 patients admitted with COVID-19 symptoms between March and May 2020. She found that “patients with COVID-19 in India are younger in age, have less number of co-morbid conditions and possibly have a lesser need for intensive care.” Even in this second wave of cases, Dr. De Souza finds that “younger patients without any co-morbidities are affected.”

This finding, in my analysis, is a crucial indicator of how the dreaded disease has blown out of control. Younger people tend to be more mobile and more likely to engage in outdoor activities. And if they are asymptomatic, more’s the risk of spread. In fact, one study showed that 69 percent of cases in India are asymptomatic.

De Souza emphasized that the mortality rates for those vaccinated with both doses was very low. “In fact I’ve not seen any deaths in patients who have been vaccinated with both doses of the vaccines,” she reiterated.

The last few weeks in India have reinforced the need to be vaccinated, no matter which part of the world you live in. Early this year, in India, people were dismissing the idea of vaccinations and now folks are begging for it, said De Souza.

There’s a shortage of vaccinations in India. Sandip Roy, a journalist for KALW living in Kolkata, India, mentioned that his second dose just got canceled, and that there are no slots available for the entire month of May. “Every encounter has started to feel like a game of Russian roulette. Every time you go out you feel like this might be the time that you bring the virus home,” Roy said.

And social media is “awash with pleas for help,” with people begging for oxygen cylinders and concentrators, according to Roy.

Dilip D’Souza, a journalist, in his latest piece for Live Mint, a news site in India, wrote about a friend who tested positive for the coronavirus. He needed a hospital bed but there were none available. A network of friends like D’Souza rallied to call and text people to find a bed somewhere. It took close to half a day to finally find a bed for the friend. “We are the privileged ones in this country, with resources and a vast network of similarly privileged contacts to tap into — and it still took us 300 man-hours to get our friend to hospital,” wrote D’Souza. “For so many others out there, what must the struggle be like to care for loved ones hit by this virus?” he asked.

Many in San Francisco are stepping up to help the situation in India. Salesforce loaded a Boeing 787 with medical supplies including oxygen concentrators and pulse oximeters for India. MR Rangaswami, angel investor and founder of the nonprofit Indiaspora who lost his sister to COVID-19 a few months ago, has directed his efforts to launching the platform and has managed to raise more than $2.7 million to help with, among other things, setting up makeshift isolation COVID care centers in India.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed hundreds of oxygen concentrators, cylinders, regulators, oximeters and 1 Deployable Oxygen Concentrator Systems (DOCS) to India. And there’s author Ethel Rohan, a member of the Writers Grotto, who is matching the amount of her book sales of “In the Event of Contact” at the Booksmith through May 31. “On June 1, the Booksmith will let me know the total amount of books purchased ($16.95 +tax) and I’ll match $20 to every copy sold and donate to aid India,” she wrote in an email.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, remarked that the horrific images from India reinforce the fact that “this is a global pandemic.” A decline of cases in America merely sends the message that vaccines are important because “no country is an island.”

The severity of impact of coronavirus has largely been localized within countries of origins because of lockdowns and mask rules, but as states and nations begin to open up that localization will start dissipating. Already Seychelles is seeing a steep rise in cases after it opened up for tourism on March 25.

“Was India complacent because the numbers were going down in India?” Roy asked. It’s a question we in America need to pay close attention to.

There are vaccines available for those who need it in San Francisco and elsewhere, yet the numbers are far short of herd immunity. Fifty-seven percent of San Francisco and 35 percent of California are fully vaccinated. That still leaves a substantial number of individuals yet to safeguard themselves and others from the dreaded disease.

It’s touching and gratifying to hear of gestures of support for people in need. It goes to reinforce once again that we do not live on an island. … though I’d like to think that one of the most valuable ways to help each other as citizens of the world is to get vaccinated.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. If you’d like to donate to India, visit, and/or

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