India: A Ticking Time Bomb

India is currently far behind the United States and China in the number of citizens reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. Although mass gatherings have been called off, social distancing is difficult for the densely populated country. Streets are currently crowded, and markets are still flooded in the region of Dharavi. Similarly, an annual religious festival during the spring, Ram Navani, brings hundreds of thousands of Hindus to the mythological Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya. It has been canceled, but experts predict that there will likely be many small gatherings to celebrate the event. More so, experts believe that the reason India has had such a low case rate for coronavirus is because the country is missing “vast numbers of asymptomatic infections,” which is worsened by India’s weak public health system and the prevalence of other respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis.

In the state of Kerala, hundreds of Hindus took part in a large religious procession even while the stay-at-home orders were set in place by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The lack of consideration given to the government order may soon put India in danger of medical collapse. There is only one hospital bed for every two thousand people, and as more and more citizens become infected with the coronavirus, there will be a shortage of medical equipment and even doctors. Another problem is India’s dense population. Dharavi, “one of Asia’s largest slums,” is a town that  has a population density of 270,000 people per square kilometer, making social distancing impracticable. According to the World Economic Forum, this is “fertile ground” for the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, the large population has made it difficult for government officials to regulate strict stay-at-home policies. 

Indian officials have been working overtime to ensure coronavirus prevention. Their primary focus has been screening international travelers at airports. However, the vast majority of people screened showed no visible symptoms and did not undergo tests. Several asymptomatic patients passed medical inspection and had contact with many other people, before they officially tested positive for the virus. The spread of misinformation by citizens has also made it more difficult to keep such a populous country safe from the virus. Some legislators assert that urine and cow dung heals the coronavirus without any scientific reasoning while, in Sri Lanka, a post became popular on Facebook showing an improper way to wear a mask.

However, considering the low numbers of coronavirus patients, it seems that India has been faring well at the moment as compared with the rest of the world, including especially developed countries like the United Kingdom and the United States with much better healthcare systems. Why is this the case? One possibility is due to millions of citizens growing up in India who have been vaccinated with BCG, an affordable and accessible cure for tuberculosis. A recent study done by researchers from the New York Institute of Technology examined the global spread of COVID-19, comparing it with the world BCG Atlas (which contains data on countries with BCG vaccine coverage). They came to a significant conclusion: countries with a “policy for universal BCG vaccination had a lower number of cases” than countries like the United States, where the vaccine was discontinued after the tuberculosis incident ended. The researchers also claim that the vaccine provides immunity against many other respiratory illnesses and scientists have since tried to assess the “extent of immunity it can provide against the novel coronavirus”. 

Although it may be possible that the coronavirus will spread at a similar rate in India as in countries like Italy due to its dense population and difficulty enforcing strict regulations, nothing of the sort has happened yet. This could be due to one of two things: India has underreported the asymptomatic cases which are challenging to find or India has mitigated infections through its tight airport security and mandatory BCG vaccinations. Nevertheless, the least that the coronavirus has been is predictable, so the Indian government and healthcare system may have to  prepare itself for a possible national emergency due to  its lack of medical resources for 1.3 billion people. 

Photo from shutterstock.