In April, the trend line of COVID-19 cases reported in India started rising so steeply that it looked vertical.
Like elsewhere around the world, the pandemic has not been an equalizer in India. It has subjected women (cis- and trans) and non-binary people to even more precarity than they ordinarily face and compounded the discrimination towards marginalized religious, caste, and tribal groups. Urban women who work professional jobs have largely weathered the economic crisis. Domestic workers, street vendors, and day laborers in the same cities, however, have lost their livelihoods. The burden of caring and household work during successive lockdowns has also fallen disproportionately on women.
This exponential surge occurred while many countries in the west were turning a corner in the pandemic. The United States, with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, reached a significant milestone: 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were doled out by April 22, as more than 61 percent of the population received at least one dose. While disparities and vaccine hesitancy persisted in pockets, mask mandates loosened, travel restrictions lifted and Americans entertained the prospect of a post-pandemic summer. By contrast, Indians were — and continue to be — under siege by an evolving virus.
With the latest surge, the trauma cycle is repeating itself with even higher intensity. In New Delhi, one in four people tested for the virus were positive in mid-April — a terrifying prospect for a city with twice the population of New York City. This COVID-19 positivity rate climbed up to a third soon after, driven by new, more infectious variants of the virus. The strained medical infrastructure in the city broke down. The number of hospital beds fell below 100 and the oxygen supplies started dwindling. People found themselves on their own, gasping for breath.
Some went to great lengths to track down oxygen cylinders, paying dramatically inflated prices on the black market to save their loved ones. Many took to social media and messaging services in desperation, pleading for medical assistance in hopes that fellow citizens might come through. Ordinary citizens created mutual aid documents, collating lists of resources and phone numbers, and helped guide individual requests where they could.
But it wasn’t enough. On April 17, a veteran journalist from the city of Lucknow died live-tweeting his dipping oxygen levels, one among many whose requests for help went unmet. Thousands of Indians on the other side of the digital divide, such as wage laborers, did not have access to lifelines on social media. As the virus spread around them, many of the country’s citizens lost hope.
On April 24, The New York Times reported what journalists and observers on the ground had long been raising alarm over: Coronavirus deaths were being underreported and undercounted. Photographs started emerging of mass funeral pyres and overwhelmed crematoriums. With over 300,000 positives reported every day, India now accounted for one in three of the new cases reported in the world, driving the global high.
The increased attention spurred international action. After receiving wide-ranging criticism, the Biden administration pledged spare vaccines and raw materials it had been sitting on. Other governments followed suit. Critics say these gestures should go further.
India’s devastating second COVID-19 wave undoubtedly took place within the context of a global healthcare inequality, where richer countries tend to get first dibs and hoard access to vaccine advancements. However, its own government is not without blame. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed strict but chaotic lockdown measures last year. Those measures were actually counterproductive, actually helping spread the virus, The New York Times reported. This year, the administration has been lax, focusing on election rallies rather than adequate prevention measures or proper messaging. It is not an accident that India, a world leader in vaccine production, now faces a shortfall of the COVID-19 vaccine. It has been running out of raw materials, unable to keep pace with the magnitude of the current crisis. Meanwhile, the government is scrambling to censor the growing international critique.
As with all disasters, this one worsens existing inequalities across gender, caste, religion, and class — and it is partially man-made. Below are some glimpses of what it is like to live through it as an Indian woman.