As India’s Covid crisis and variant spreads, neighboring countries go on high alert

As India continues to grapple with an unrelenting second wave of Covid-19, some neighboring countries in South Asia are seeing their own surges in case numbers, prompting border closures and travel bans.

India is now reporting approximately 1 million new coronavirus cases every three days, with the daily death toll exceeding 3,293 on Wednesday, according to data from the Indian Ministry of Health. The outbreak has pushed the country’s healthcare system to near breaking point. With no space left in hospitals, patients are being left to die at home, in ambulances and outside clinics. Even those who are given a bed remain in danger, with hospitals running out of oxygen and asking patients’ families to bring their own.

In the city of Surat in Gujarat state, nearly 150 people are being turned away from hospitals every day, said Dr. Hiral Shah, president of the state-level Indian Medical Association. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed with our own population and we are running low on oxygen so we are not able to admit those coming in from surrounding areas,” he said. “The supply (of oxygen) is uncertain, hospitals don’t know what will happen today or tomorrow. With desperate scenes like those in Gujarat unfolding across India, neighboring countries have reason to be nervous. India’s second wave emerged alongside a new local variant identified in late March, which has since been detected in numerous countries around the world including Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Scientists are still conducting genomic sequencing on the Indian variant, and no formal data has been published, meaning it remains unknown exactly how contagious the variant is, or what additional risks it might pose. But given the speed and severity with which the second wave has devastated India, countries are taking no chances, with many implementing travel bans and suspending flights from India. In an address Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned that should the Indian variant arrive in Iran, the country “will have a big problem.”

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