The Pandemic Will Be More Deadly This Year

Covid-19 is going to kill more people in 2021 than it did last year. If you want to see why, look at what’s happening in India.

Cases have been surging in the country of 1.37 billion people. On Sunday alone, 261,500 new infections were recorded. That’s as bad as the U.S. during all but the worst five days of the pandemic in December and early January. Case counts are rising far more quickly, too. Average infection numbers over the past seven days have run at nearly three times the level two weeks ago, a pace of growth that the U.S. last saw in the early days of the outbreak a year ago. 

If things don’t change soon, the country will be facing 3,000 deaths a day — twice its current level, and 10 times what was being seen through most of this year — Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan, wrote last week.

Worryingly, the clear signs of a second wave haven’t prompted much course correction since. With elections underway in the states of Assam and West Bengal, the Twitter feed of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been interspersing updates about the virus with Trump-style footage of him, unmasked, addressing mass rallies:

Even held outdoors, such events carry a profound risk of spreading the most infectious variants to every corner of the country. Close to 10% of people returning to Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad, from the festival tested positive for Covid over the weekend, the Press Trust of India reported Monday. Hitherto, the coronavirus has mostly hit the relatively affluent, urbanized parts of the country that are best able to cope with it, such as the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, the capital Delhi, and Maharashtra, home to Mumbai. If the Kumbh Mela seeds it in rural districts, where the majority of India’s population lives, the death toll could be higher still.

There’s a lesson in this for the world. The 1.2 million people who’ve died from Covid so far this year already represent about two-thirds of the 1.8 million fatalities in 2020. Yet people are  behaving as if it’s already over. That’s removing the sense of unified urgency that led many nations to make such strides in turning around the pandemic last year.

Vaccine supplies for the richest (and, thanks to global initiatives, poorest) countries are relatively ample. Yet those for middle-income nations, where the majority of the planet’s population lives, are grossly inadequate, blocked by restrictive patent rules. India, with one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical industries, is far better placed than most midsize economies to cope, but even it is crumbling under the strain.

The more people infected in emerging countries while the rest of the world looks away, the more opportunities Covid-19 will have to develop into fresh strains and prolong this death and misery. We must do better. The globe is still under attack, but our defenses are in disarray.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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