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Covid-19 and the invisibilization of rural India

By Barkha Dutt

As the government declares the worst of the second wave of the pandemic over in our cities and gets ready to unlock, in our villages, our citizens have been dying. And they have been dying uncounted, and mostly at home, from illnesses that match the exact symptoms of Covid-19, including plummeting oxygen levels.

On the ground, in every hamlet, even the smallest ones across states, residents say, anywhere between 20-40 deaths have taken place in May. Though rural health care infrastructure in our southern states is distinctly better than in the north, the struggle for testing and vaccines is exactly the same in large swathes of rural India, irrespective of geography.

In Tamil Nadu’s Chennasandiram panchayat of seven villages, the panchayat president Jayakumar Reddy tells me that the surge in sudden deaths in the last two months has made people even more terrified to make the trek to nearby towns and cities — the only places where they have a hope of getting a vaccine.

Among the dead is 27-year-old Vijay, who was discharged from a private hospital and told he was well enough to go home, only to die the next morning, eight hours later. We also meet Shobha, the sister of Rudresh, a young man who travelled from Bengaluru to Hosur in the hope of finding a hospital closer to his home. He ended up riding in an ambulance for 250 kilometres before dying in the vehicle, unable to find an oxygenated intensive care unit (ICU) bed. “No one cares about the poor,” his sister says, barely able to form the words through a cascade of tears.

“We want vaccines,” implores Reddy. “We are all farmers. As poor people, are we going to be completely overlooked?” he asks.

The invisibilization of rural India is the stage of the pandemic we are now at, relegated to the margins of public and policy discourse and attention.

Tragedies abound in our villages where hardly anyone is chronicling them. Not only are their deaths slipping through the official cracks — of deep concern in a week that saw Bihar reconcile its death data in thousands, causing India to breach the 6,000 mark for daily fatalities — the absence of vaccines and testing also means we may not be measuring the trajectory of the second wave accurately. The crests and troughs in Covid-19 cases and the spikes and falls of daily infographics by which we now measure the wellness of our lives have been based mostly on city-driven data.

Reddy reports 20 confirmed Covid deaths in the villages under him in Hosur. He does not think most of them have been certified.

Hundreds of miles away in Ramana village in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, the village pradhan (headman) reports twice as many deaths, 40 in the last few weeks. Ram Gopal, who lost two family members, an uncle and a grandfather, shows us all the related medical paperwork. In one case, no death certificate has been provided. In another “typical pneumonia”, and not Covid-19, is listed as the reason for the fatality.

In UP’s Kannauj, at the cremation ground, residents say four or five hearses have left their villages every day in the past few weeks.

The ethical issue with these deaths remaining uncounted and unrecognised is obvious. But from the perspective of framing public policy too, there is a real conundrum.

If sickness and death in India’s villages remain on the margins of public and media attention, do we really know for sure if cases are coming down? Is the decision to ease restrictions based on data that is entirely city-centric? And once movement between villages and cities resumes, isn’t there a real danger that the virus will also travel up and down, undetected?

In 2020 we saw the poorest Indian citizen suffer as migrant workers, in the hundreds of thousands, fled the cities on foot, sometimes barefoot, to return to the villages.

In 2021, the virus came home for the wealthy and upper-middle-class Indians. Of course, low-income households suffered the most, financial penury compounding their grief and loss.

But as the situation in the metropolises slowly comes under tenuous control, the Delta variant’s damage has once again exposed the great class divide of the virus and our response to it.

(The Op-Eds appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Latest News Sports

IOA chief quashes reports that India may be barred from Olympics

New Delhi: Indian Olympic Association Chief Narinder Batra has quashed reports that India along with several other countries may get barred from entering Japan for the Tokyo Olympics because of the rise in Covid-19 cases in these countries.

Reacting to the reports Batra told the media that the claims have been refuted and there is no truth in the reports.

“The reports are totally untrue and the organizing committee has already denied these reports.”

It was also reported that the Japanese government has put India along with 9 other countries on a no-fly list.

Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee chief executive officer, Toshiro Muto, also denied reports.

“There is concern about the new variant from India, for that reason, before they come to Japan, they need to be fully vaccinated,” Muto said.

In a first, India might have two flag-bearers, one male and one female, at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics to ensure “gender parity”.

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e-paper-stories Latest News

Covid easing in India as govt promises 2 Billion vaccines soon

New Delhi: A plateauing in daily new Covid-19 cases and a slight decline in positivity rate have been recorded in the country over the past three days, the government said Thursday, but added 10 states still have a positivity rate of 25 per cent or more.

Delhi logged 10,500 new cases over 24 days, a dip of 21% over the previous day. Consequently, the city’s oxygen demand has reduced so much that it can give its surplus oxygen to other states that need it, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said.

According to the central government, the number of districts with week-on-week rise in Covid-19 tests, yet decline in the positivity rate has increased from 125 in April 22-28 to 338 between May 6 and 12.

Addressing a press conference, a senior official, also said as many as 12 states have more than 1 lakh active Covid-19 cases, while 24 states have more than 15 percent positivity rate.

Yet, over 4,000 people lost their lives for a second straight day. While the numbers of new infections dwindled slightly with 3.62 lakh new cases reported, the situation shows some improvement in urban areas, but the rural population is still suffering silently.

Meanwhile, stung by the shortage of vaccines, the government said that more than 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines will become available  soon in the country. NITI Aayog member Dr VK Paul said that the department of biotechnology, and other departments concerned, and the ministry of external affairs have been in touch with vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

The Centre reiterated that any vaccine which is approved by US’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and WHO can come to India.

“Import license will be granted within 1-2 days. No import license is pending,” Dr Paul said. Last month, the central government had fast-tracked approvals for Covid-19 vaccines cleared for use in the US, the UK, the European Union and Japan.

As the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, India exported more than 65 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines under its “Vaccine Maitri” initiative but supplies have slowed to a trickle since March as domestic infection rates surged.

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India Latest News Sports

India’s biggest test in England are no matches for long

New Delhi: On its upcoming tour of England, the Indian cricket team’s biggest challenge could be the one-and-a-half month gap, between the World Test Championship (WTC) final and the Test series against the host, when it will have no competitive cricket.

Although Virat Kohli’s team may get enough time to get acclimatised for the five-Test series against England, starting August 4, following the WTC final against New Zealand from June 18-22, no matches have been scheduled for the visitors.

The Indian team will have to play only intra-squad matches to prepare, this was confirmed by an England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) statement last month.

The Indian team was supposed to play India A in warm-up fixtures as per initial plans. However, the ECB last month announced that the India A tour had been postponed.

“The India men’s team will instead tour with a larger squad to prepare for, and use during, the five-match Test series,” the ECB statement had said.

The Indian team will get to play two four-day intra-squad matches.

With just 24 players, including four reserves, available, the team will barely be able to make two teams for the two warm-up matches.

Last time in 2018, the Indians played a three-day game prior to the Test series against Essex.

The number of warm-up matches ahead of overseas series has gone down in recent times due to a packed schedule, which doesn’t allow long stays in any country. This has adversely affected batsmen touring England as they have been found wanting against extra ball movement in English conditions.

However, this time India will be spending three and a half months in England due to the twin assignment. But due to Covid-19 pandemic there will be no games in this period when players could have polished their skill.

India will also get very little time to prepare for the WTC final as they will straightaway enter the game with just about four days’ practice, unlike opponents New Zealand who will have played two Test matches against England before the WTC final.

To India’s advantage, Kane Williamson’s Kiwis will be forced to take field thrice in Test matches in 17 days, leaving them exhausted.

Williamson’s team plays England on June 2 in the first Test. It will be followed by the second Test on June 10 before the WTC final gets underway on June 18.

India are likely to leave on June 2. They then undergo 10 days of quarantine before they have 3-4 days of practice.

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Latest News USA

My heart aches over the situation in India: US Rep. Grace Meng

US Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations and a member of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, issued the following statement on the surge of coronavirus cases in India.

“My heart aches over the situation in India and I am deeply saddened by the loss of life as the country battles the surge in COVID-19 cases. I am praying for the people of India, especially those who have lost loved ones, and I am keeping them in my thoughts during this very difficult and challenging time.

It is critical for the United States to provide assistance to our friend and ally, and I support our nation’s efforts to do so. The US and India share an unbreakable bond and we must be there for them in their urgent time of need. My office stands ready to assist constituents with family in India in any way we can.”


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e-paper-stories Latest News

Massive US Covid help en route to India

Washington: Supplies and assistance to help India battle a second COVID-19 wave began making their way from the United States on April 28 with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announcing that the “world’s largest military aircraft” had left Travis Air Force Base in California for New Delhi.

The aircraft is carrying supplies that included 440 oxygen cylinders donated by California, 100,000 N95 masks and 960,000 rapid diagnostic tests, USAID said. The agency is procuring 1,000 oxygen concentrators and said it had sent over $23 million in assistance to India since the start of the pandemic, The Hindu reported.

The U.S. government has also diverted its order of Astra Zeneca manufacturing supplies to India. The White House said this diversion will enable India to produce another 20 million doses of vaccines at least.

President Joe Biden had spoken at length with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday and conveyed solidarity with India even as India was recording a million cases every 3 days and more and more states besides Maharashtra and Delhi were imposing lockdowns or other restrictions.

The White House also released a list of materials and other assistance it was sending to India. It said that an initial delivery of 1,000 cylinders will stay in India, getting repeatedly refilled via local supply centers and “more planeloads” would come. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was also procuring oxygen locally (in India) and will be coordinating with the government to deliver them to hospitals.

Other supplies included 1,700 oxygen concentrators, oxygen generation units (supporting 20 patients each), 15 million N95 masks, 1 million rapid diagnostic tests and the first tranche of 20,000 doses of anti-viral remdesivir (the U.S. manufacturers and patent holders, Gilead Sciences has already committed at least 450,000 doses).

“U.S. CDC experts will work hand-in-hand with India’s experts in the following areas: laboratory, surveillance and epidemiology, bioinformatics for genomic sequencing and modeling, infection prevention and control, vaccine rollout, and risk communication,” the White House said.

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International Latest News

India absent at China meet with neighbors on Covid vaccine supply

Beijing: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a virtual meeting of his counterparts from some South Asian countries to deal with the COVID-19 situation during which he proposed flexible methods for “diversified and stable” vaccine supplies.

Wang presided over the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to discuss COVID-19 cooperation to firm up its influence in South Asia.

India, Maldives and Bhutan were conspicuously absent at the meeting.

Wang said China also extended an invitation to India to attend the meeting, state-run Global Times reported.

He said that this meeting also extended an invitation to India. China expresses its deep sympathy over the raging epidemic in India and extends its sincere condolences to the Indian people, a press release issued by the Foreign Ministry said.

State-run China Global Television Network quoted him as saying that the first batch of oxygen supplies have been sent to India.

Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing that the “door is wide open” for India and other South Asian countries to join the framework.

Except for Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have received vaccine supplies from India.

He also noted that China is willing to set up warehouses for emergency supplies in those countries through friendly consultation and to explore various forms of cooperation tackling the spread of variants of COVID-19.

About China’s offer of extending support and assistance to India, he said, “China has expressed readiness early on to provide necessary support and assistance to India, and is coordinating Chinese enterprises to positively respond to India’s demand for anti-epidemic supplies such as oxygen concentrators”. (The Print)


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Latest News USA

Working closely with India, will rapidly deploy additional support: Blinken on massive covid surge in India

The US will rapidly deploy additional support to India and its health care heroes amidst the horrific Covid-19 outbreak, secretary of state Antony Blinken has said.
Blinken’s remarks came as pressure grew on the Biden administration to ship Covid-19 vaccines along with several life-saving medical supplies to India.
Our hearts go out to the Indian people in the midst of the horrific Covid-19 outbreak, Blinken said in a tweet on Saturday night.
We are working closely with our partners in the Indian government, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India’s health care heroes, Blinken said.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the United States is deeply concerned by the severe Covid outbreak in India.
We are working around the clock to deploy more supplies and support to our friends and partners in India as they bravely battle this pandemic. More very soon, Sullivan said.
With a record single-day rise of 3,49,691 new coronavirus infections, India’s total tally of Covid-19 cases climbed to 1,69,60,172, while active cases crossed the 26-lakh mark, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Sunday.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that the US was working closely with Indian officials at both the political and experts’ level to identify ways to help address the crisis.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter also told reporters that the US continues to work closely with India to facilitate the movement of essential supplies and also address the bottlenecks of the supply chains.

Several US lawmakers, eminent Indian-Americans and the powerful US Chambers of Commerce have voiced their concerns over the situation in India and have asked the Biden administration to extend assistance, release vaccines and other raw materials critical for India.

Keywords: Jalina pOrter, Jen Psaki, Antony Blinken, Jake sullivan, India, covid surge, covid-19, coronavirus,  


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Release AstraZeneca vaccine to India: Indian-American lawmaker Raja Krishnamoorthi to Biden

Indian-American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi on Saturday called on US President Joe Biden’s administration to release doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to countries, including India, currently experiencing massive and deadly surges in the spread of COVID-19.

“We are currently sitting on close to 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the US stockpile, a stockpile which we’re not using and which we’ve already opened to combat COVID 19 in Mexico and Canada,” Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.

“In order to curb the spread of this virus internationally and to protect public health and our international economy, we need to get these vaccines out the door now. I respectfully but strongly call on the Biden Administration to release millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses to countries hardest-hit by the spread of COVID-19, including India, Argentina, and potentially others,” he added.

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e-paper-stories Latest News

US asks citizens not to travel to India due to Covid-19

The US Department of State has raised Level 4 travel advisory asking citizens to cancel any travel to India due to COVID-19, crime, and terrorism.

Read the Department of State’s COVID-19 page before you plan any international travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for India due to COVID-19, indicating a very high level of COVID-19 in the country. Visit the Embassy’s COVID-19 page for more information on COVID-19 in India.

Do not travel to:

  • The state of Jammu and Kashmir (except the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) due to terrorism and civil unrest.
  • Within 10 km of the India-Pakistan border due to the potential for armed conflict.

Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and government facilities.

The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in rural areas from eastern Maharashtra and northern Telangana through western West Bengal as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel to these areas.

Read the country information page.

If you decide to travel to India:


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