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India’s COVID Tsunami

The number of infections in India surpassed 17 million in recent days, and the official death toll now exceeds 190,000. How did everything go so wrong so soon after India recovered from the first wave of the pandemic last year, resumed normal life and economic activity, and started exporting vaccines?

NEW DELHI – It is humbling when a columnist must retract his words soon after penning them. Just two months ago, after India rushed millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to over 60 countries, I praised the country’s “vaccine diplomacy.” India’s aspirations to be recognized as a global power had been given a real boost. Now, with more than 300,000 new cases a day and the death toll evidently much higher than reported, India is no one’s idea of a global leader.

In my own defense, I was worried that India had exported three times as many vaccines as it had administered domestically. The country was clearly lagging behind its own target of immunizing 400 million people by August, after vaccinating some three million healthcare workers in a campaign that began only on January 16. “[M]ounting concern about rising case numbers, the emergence of COVID-19 variants that may not respond to existing vaccines, and an economy that has not yet fully recovered,” I noted, “will intensify the challenge India confronts in fulfilling its obligations to developing countries while also meeting domestic demand.”

At the time, I did not realize the scale of the challenge. The number of infections surpassed 17 million in recent days, and the official death toll now exceeds 190,000. Hospital beds are now overflowing, oxygen supplies have dwindled, vaccination centers have run out of doses, and pharmacies are unable to meet the demand for antivirals. India is reeling.

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