India's coronavirus death toll passes 100,000 with no end in sight

India's death toll from COVID-19 has risen past 100,000, as grieving relatives said more could have been done to save their loved ones.

People wait in a queue to get tested for COVID-19 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India.

People wait in a queue to get tested for COVID-19 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Source: AAP

India's death toll from COVID-19 has risen past 100,000, only the third country in the world to reach that bleak milestone after the United States and Brazil, and its pandemic shows no sign of abating.

Total deaths rose to 100,842, the health ministry said on Saturday, while the tally of infections climbed to 6.47 million after a daily increase in cases of 79,476.

India now has the highest rate of daily increase in infections in the world.

When Reuters spoke to relatives of 30 of those who had died in the conservative country, some said they faced ostracism after their loved ones caught the virus.

Others said they have suffered from depression and money troubles, while all of them said more could have been done to save the people who died.

Ramananda Sarkar, 43, gives instruction to health workers before cremating the body of a COVID-19 victim in India, on 15 September.
Source: AAP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, faced with a collapsing economy after imposing a tough lockdown to try to stem the spread of the virus in late March, is pushing ahead with a full opening of the country.

Cinemas were allowed to re-open at half capacity this week and authorities can decide to re-open schools from the middle of this month.

Heading into winter and the holiday season, including the Hindu festival of Diwali next month, the world's second most populous country could see a jump in cases, health experts said.

"We have seen some recent slowdown of the virus curve but this may be a local peak, there may be another coming," Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said. 

She said data showed a little over seven per cent of the population of 1.3 billion had been exposed to the virus, meaning India was still far from any sort of herd immunity.

The number of cases could rise to 12.2 million by the end of the year but the rate of spread would depend on how effective measures such as social distancing were, she said.

"So it will continue like a slow burning coil, that is my hope, and we have to play the long game to stop it from being a wildfire."

Data questioned 

The United States, Brazil and India together account for nearly 45 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths globally.

Death rates in India, however, have been significantly lower than in those other two countries, raising questions about the accuracy of its data.

India has, on average, less than one death from the disease for every 10,000 people while the United States and Brazil have seen six deaths per 10,000.

A student reacts as she is tested for COVID-19 at a school in the Morigaon district of Assam, India, on 30 September.
Source: AAP

US President Donald Trump, defending his administration's handling of the pandemic in this week's presidential debate, said countries such as India were under-reporting deaths.

Shashank Tripathi, from the Centre for Infectious Disease Research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, acknowledged there could be problems with the data though India's young population might help explain the lower death rate.

"In India, even without a pandemic, all deaths are not properly registered," Dr Tripathi said.

"I'm not very confident that the mortality rates reflect the right numbers, though the younger demographic has given us some advantage."

Representatives of the health ministry and the Indian Council of Medical Research did not immediately respond to calls or emails for comment.

Health experts said there could be greater immunity in India because of the high incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Nearly 1,200 people in India die of TB every day, roughly the same as deaths from COVID-19.

Daily commuters wearing face masks to prevent coronavirus waits inside a bus at a bus terminus in Kolkata, India, on 1 October.
Source: AAP

Kamakshi Bhate, professor emeritus of community medicine at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, said she didn't expect India's death toll to surge dramatically even as the virus spreads into dense population clusters and across the countryside.

"People were expecting that entire slums would get wiped out but it didn't happen that way. We have our own resistance," she said.

Changes missed

The country's rudimentary healthcare system has at times struggled to cope with the huge number of coronavirus cases.

Many of the victims' relatives said there were missed opportunities to cure the infected.

Jamal Khan, a 41-year-old farmer, developed a fever in August in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh state, India's most populous.

His brother, Asim, said local doctors failed to realise he was COVID-positive. It was only when he was transferred to Delhi, ten days after he first became ill, that he was diagnosed.

Indian social activist Sandeep Rathore holds a placard as he stands alone in the middle of a busy street, in Jammu, India, on 30 September.
Source: AAP

By then, his lungs were badly damaged, and he died soon after, according to Asim.

“If he would have been diagnosed on time in his own native place, he would have surely survived,” Asim said.

Rekha Khandait’s 58-year-old husband Jayant is one of more than 200 police officers who died from the virus in the western state of Maharashtra alone. She was one of several people who said a lack of oxygen contributed to the death.

“I can’t believe that six months have passed, she said. “I still haven’t told our son yet about his death.”

Tilak Raj, a 38-year-old software engineer, said when his mother Krishna Devi was hospitalised, there was no oxygen in the ambulance. When they arrived at the hospital, the cylinder that was provided was empty in five minutes.

“If we had a better health system, my mother would have survived,” he said. 

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Published 3 October 2020 at 5:25pm, updated 3 October 2020 at 5:55pm
Source: Reuters - SBS