Biden Administration under growing pressure to assist India more as it battles Covid crisis

Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) wait to get admitted outside the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi, India, April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The Biden administration, under growing pressure to offer more assistance to India as it struggles to contain a devastating coronavirus outbreak, promised Sunday April 25, 2021, to provide new aid, including the materials for making vaccines.

The pledge came hours after Indian authorities announced another global record in new daily cases Sunday, and the most covid-19 deaths the country has suffered in a 24-hour period.

The National Security Council said the United States would provide vaccine materials, drugs, test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment, and was “pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis.”

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,” President Joe Biden tweeted Sunday.

People lower the body of a man who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) into a grave, during his funeral at a graveyard in New Delhi, India, April 23, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Sunday evening that the department is “currently assessing the equipment we can both procure and draw from our own inventory in the coming days and weeks” to help India’s health-care workers. He added that the department will assist with delivering supplies, including “oxygen-related equipment,” to India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delivering his monthly radio address on Sunday, urged people to get vaccinated because the devastating new wave of infections threatened to overwhelm the nation’s health services. Meanwhile, details emerged of the government’s efforts to block criticism of its response to the outbreak.

India weathered a surge in September that approached nearly 100,000 new infections a day, then numbers dropped significantly, creating the impression that the country was defeating the virus.

The number of new cases has exploded to new highs since last month, topping 300,000 each the past four days. Sunday’s count of 349,691 new cases in the previous 24 hours was the most for any country in a 24-hour period. The 2,767 deaths reported Sunday was a new high for India.

Experts caution that the figures are underreported in the nation of more than 1.3 billion people.

Analysts blame the surge on the arrival of new coronavirus variants in a country that had settled into a degree of complacency, lifted restrictions and returned to old habits.

A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) carries an oxygen cylinder into the casualty ward at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
A patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) waits to get admitted outside the casualty ward at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP), one of India’s largest COVID-only facilities, in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

“Covid is testing our patience and capacity to bear pain,” Modi said Sunday. “After successful tackling the first wave, the nation’s morale was high. However, this storm has shaken the nation.”

Calls for the United States to provide more help have mounted in recent weeks. The head of India’s largest vaccine manufacturer asked the United States this month to lift a ban on exporting raw materials for vaccines.

Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said Sunday that “we really need to do more.”

“I don’t think we can walk away from that,” Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told George Stephanopolous on ABC’s “This Week” before the National Security Council announcement.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Sunday with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, according to National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne.

The U.S. Development Finance Corp. is funding a “substantial expansion” in manufacturing capability to enable the Indian vaccine manufacturer Biological E to produce at least 1 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, she said, and the government is deploying a team of public health experts to work with Indian authorities.

Biden and his top advisers have been cautious when publicly discussing the prospects of helping other countries bolster their vaccine supplies. They have sought to show a sensitivity to urgent needs abroad, while emphasizing that the president’s principal goal is to ensure that Americans have the vaccines they need.

A patient, wearing an oxygen mask, sits outside Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP), one of India’s largest facilities for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients only, in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

After a speech last week on the state of U.S. vaccination efforts, the president said he hoped to be helpful across the world but stopped short of specific promises.

“It’s in process,” he said. “We don’t have enough to be confident to give it – send it abroad now. But I expect we’re going to be able to do that.”

While Biden is under growing pressure to provide vaccine doses, he has sought to underscore other ways the United States helped, even as they may fall short of what some have demanded.

“We’ve done a little bit of that already. We’re looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using,” Biden said. “We’re going to make sure they are safe to be sent and we hope to be able to be of some help and value to countries around the world.”

In a sign of the growing pressure Biden faces from within his own party, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the vice chair of the Congressional India Caucus, applauded the administration’s announcement Sunday but added in a statement: “The Biden Administration can still do more, like give India our stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines that won’t be used in the U.S. and have already opened up to Mexico and Canada. And we should facilitate the Indian diaspora in America to help assist hospitals in India.”

European Union Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted Sunday that the bloc was “pooling resources” to respond rapidly to an Indian request for help. Janez Lenarcic, European commissioner for crisis management, wrote that the European Union was coordinating with member states to provide oxygen and medicine.

Many countries have provided aid. Singapore sent oxygen containers to India on Saturday. Germany was airlifting 23 mobile oxygen-generation plants to the country.

India worked with private companies to ship 80 metric tons of liquid oxygen from Saudi Arabia, the Indian Embassy in Riyadh announced Saturday. China and Russia have offered help. And Pakistan is ready to give ventilators, digital X-ray machines, protective equipment and other supplies to India, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi tweeted Sunday.

“We believe in a policy of #HumanityFirst,” Qureshi wrote in what appeared to be a thinly veiled jab at the United States.

The surge has devastated India’s health infrastructure. Hospital beds in the capital, New Delhi, and other hard-hit cities are scarce, and patients have died when oxygen supplies have been disrupted or run out. Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, announced Sunday that the city’s lockdown would be extended another week until May 3.

Modi, in his radio address, spoke with a doctor from Mumbai, Shashank Joshi, who suggested that the surge was manageable and urged against panic.

“The second wave came very fast. It is spreading faster,” the physician said. “But the recovery rate is also faster. In this phase, young people and children are also being infected.”

Cities are reporting high positive rates for coronavirus tests. In Delhi, 1 in 3 people tested are positive; in the eastern city of Kolkata, it’s 1 in 2.

The Indian government is moving to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, but the size of the population makes the task daunting.

On Sunday, the Health Ministry said more than 140 million vaccine doses had been administered in 99 days.

Modi said anyone over the age of 18 will be eligible for the vaccine starting May 1.

The government has moved to silence critics on social media, according to documents published by the Lumen Database, a transparency initiative run by Harvard University. The documents show that officials filed requests Thursday and Friday, asking Twitter to remove 52 tweets, citing India’s Information Technology Act of 2000. The move was first reported by Indian news site MediaNama, which said users in India could no longer access the tweets.

Some of the tweets appeared to include false information about the virus, but many were critical of the government. One, by actor Vineet Kumar Singh, called attention to test shortages. Another, by West Bengal Minister Moloy Ghatak, juxtaposed photos of mass cremations with images of Modi speaking and a large crowd with the caption, “When death bodies were burning, Nero was busy doing election rallies.”

“India will never forgive PM @narendramodi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement,” he tweeted.

Among the users whose tweets the government asked Twitter to block were a member of parliament and journalists.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter rules and local law,” a Twitter spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement Sunday. “If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.”

In all cases, the spokesperson wrote, Twitter notifies the account holder directly so they’re aware that it has received a legal order.”

On Sunday, Pawan Khera, national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, the country’s largest opposition party, filed a legal notice against India’s information technology minister, arguing that censorship of his tweet questioning a government decision to allow mass gatherings was “an abuse of regulatory power” and unconstitutional.

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