There is a new Covid-19 mystery in India, and it is far grimmer than the first one.
For most of the past year, Covid deaths across much of Asia and Africa have been strikingly low, as I described last month. And they remain low in nearly all of Africa and East Asia — but not India, which is suffering a terrible outbreak. Hospitals are running out of oxygen to treat patients, and confirmed Covid deaths have climbed to 2,000 per day, up from fewer than 100 in February. The true death toll is even higher.
The sharp increase has surprised many people, both inside and outside India. “India’s massive Covid surge puzzles scientists,” as Smriti Mallapaty wrote in Nature. “I was expecting fresh waves of infection,” Shahid Jameel, a virologist at Ashoka University, said, “but I would not have dreamt that it would be this strong.”
never quite arrived. Instead, millions of people contracted only mild cases.
the low levels of obesity, the population’s relative youth and the possibility that previous viruses had created some natural immunity — all seemed to suggest that India was not simply on a delayed Covid timetable. The country, like many of its neighbors, seemed to be escaping the worst of the pandemic.
Scientific research suggesting that about half of adults in major cities had already been infected was consistent with this notion. “It led to the assumption that India had been cheaply, naturally vaccinated,” Dr. Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, told me.
Government officials acted particularly confident. As Ramanan Laxminarayan, a Princeton University epidemiologist based in New Delhi, told Nature, “There was a public narrative that India had conquered Covid-19.” Some scientists who thought that a new Covid wave remained possible were afraid to contradict the message coming from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Modi has a record of stifling dissent, and Freedom House, the democracy watchdog group, recently said India had become only a “partly free” country that was moving “toward authoritarianism.”
Confident they had beaten Covid, government officials relaxed restrictions on virtually all activities, including weddings, political rallies and religious gatherings. The northern town of Haridwar held one of the world’s biggest gatherings this month, with millions of people celebrating the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela.
By mid-March, though, the virus was beginning to reassert itself. A major factor appears to be that many people who previously had mild or asymptomatic cases of Covid remained vulnerable to it. (A recent academic study, done in China, suggests that mild cases confer only limited immunity.) The emergence of contagious new variants is playing a role, too. This combination — less immunity than many people thought, new variants and a resumption of activities — seems to have led to multiple superspreader events, Dr. Jennifer Lighter of New York University told me.