Surging COVID-19 in India: millions of older people at risk

Apr 23, 2021 | All posts, Country reports, Relevant news and stories

By Peter Lloyd-Sherlock

Over the past weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached catastrophic levels, first in Brazil, then in other parts of Latin America and now in India. What does this mean for older people?

India has a population of 140 million people aged 60 and over. This is around double the number living in the USA, of whom more than 500,000 have so far died as a result of COVID-19. Based on a simplistic assumption that similar death rates apply, this could mean more than a million older people in India may lose their lives due to the pandemic. Eventually, India’s slow-moving COVID-19 vaccination may limit the numbers of deaths. Conversely, India’s weak health service infrastructure will reduce access to treatment and therefore increase mortality in comparison to countries like the USA.

Brazil’s experience presents some sobering lessons for India. The progress of Brazil’s COVID-19 vaccination programme has been relatively rapid and the majority of older people have now received at least one dose. Yet daily numbers of older adults dying due to COVID-19 have surged in recent weeks. This shows that vaccination alone will not be enough to turn the tide of COVID-19 in countries like India, especially as dangerous new variants become more prevalent. In both Brazil and India, there is an urgent need to implement robust lockdowns and other public health measures, but the leadership of neither country appears minded to take that step.

Whatever the ultimate toll of COVID-19 on older people in countries like India, each death is a family tragedy. Today’s Guardian newspaper includes accounts of two such tragedies, in Peru and in India.

As a coronavirus variant traced to the Brazilian Amazon marauded through Peru’s coastal capital last month, Rommel Heredia raced to his local hospital to seek help for his brother, mother and father.

“I said goodbye and promised I’d come back to take them home,” said the 47-year-old PE teacher, his voice muffled by two black masks pulled tightly over his face.

Heredia was unable to fulfil his pledge. Three days later, his 52-year-old brother, Juan Carlos, died as he waited for a bed in intensive care at the Rebagliati public hospital in Lima. The next day he lost his 80-year-old mother, Vilma, who suffered a fatal brain inflammation doctors blamed on Covid-19. Four days later his father, Jorge, passed away.

Haleem Khan, from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, told the Guardian she had been wandering around government and private hospitals for days searching for a bed for her 76 year-old mother, Nazma.

“In each hospital dozens of people like us were struggling due to oxygen shortage. They were asking hospital authorities [for help], but no one was listening to us,” she said. “Many private hospitals in the district told us that if you want beds, then you should provide oxygen yourself”.

She tried to contact private suppliers of oxygen, but failed to secure any in time. Her mother died on Thursday night, seven days after she first developed a fever”.