Coronavirus: New Zealand 'standing ready and willing' to help India as epidemiologist warns of million cases every day

Grant Robertson says New Zealand is "standing ready and willing" to support India through its COVID-19 crisis as an epidemiologist predicts the south-Asian nation will soon be recording up to a million cases of the virus every day.

India is currently consumed by a COVID-19 catastrophe, with the nation recording upwards of 350,000 cases a day and around 3000 deaths. The nation's fragile health system has been overwhelmed and locals have turned to social media to find critical health equipment like ventilators. The military is also now releasing oxygen to civilian hospitals. 

Dr Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist based in Michigan, is predicting the COVID-19 wave to hit its peak in India by early May.

"If things continue the way they are and no stringent lockdowns are enforced, we are projecting a peak with 800,000 to 1 million cases reported every day and around 5000 deaths reported every day," she told The AM Show on Tuesday morning. "It is just unthinkable. The situation on the ground, the reality, is actually much worse."

Dr Mukherjee expects the curb to eventually flatten by around July. But by the end of the Indian summer, 600,000 people could be dead from the virus, she says. 

"This is very hard for me to speak about. Every time I talk about these numbers, I just think that every number is a person and is an irreplaceable person to a family or a community. So many of my own friends have been hit by this that it just seems very futile to talk about numbers."

New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister says Aotearoa is ready to assist where it can. 

"We are standing ready and willing to do whatever is asked of us by the Indian government and by the international community," Robertson told The AM Show. 

"Those who are a bit closer to hand are providing oxygen and I know there is work going on the provision of ventilators. I know Fisher and Paykel healthcare have some of their bases in India and I know in recent times they have been helping to provide ventilators and so on. We will do whatever we can to support India through this.

"It is really about working with the Indian government about what they need and our officials are in contact and they are ready and willing to get alongside the rest of the international community and help out here."

However, he dismissed the idea of diverting vaccine doses earmarked for New Zealand to India.  "What New Zealand has done is be part of a thing called COVAX, which is a global alliance that is working together to get vaccines into countries who cannot afford it or desperately need it in big numbers," Robertson said. 

In April, it was announced New Zealand would share 1.668 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, sufficient for more than 800,000 people, with COVAX. Those from Aotearoa will be distributed to people in the Pacific, but Robertson says India should benefit from the dose-sharing programme. 

Coronavirus: New Zealand 'standing ready and willing' to help India as epidemiologist warns of million cases every day
Photo credit: The AM Show / Getty.

Just 1.6 percent of those in India are fully vaccinated and Dr Mukherjee says it will take at least six months to vaccinate the whole population even if the number given each day is tripled. 

She said the situation in India - described by the World Health Organization on Tuesday as "beyond heartbreaking" - should concern the globe as about 18 percent of the world's population lives there. 

"This pandemic has really underscored that our health is interconnected. The more the virus spreads, the more it changes," she said. "The UK variant is in Michigan, the Indian double mutant is in California and England. Until everyone deals with this virus, no one will feel safe until everyone is safe. Global pandemics require global cooperation."

She said other countries can help by sending oxygen supplies, rapid testing kits, masks and other personal protective equipment. The epidemiologist acknowledged the United States has announced it will provide raw materials to India to assist in its vaccine production. 

"The whole world can come together. There are many opportunities to help and I hope that we connect as a community, as world citizens, and get India through this crisis."

Some Indian states have gone into lockdown, and Dr Mukherjee hopes to see that have an impact. 

"Even if we don't see a national lockdown, I do think we will see a cascade of regional lockdowns. The people of India have to really wear their masks and avoid large gatherings. Even if there is not a government shutdown, we have to shut down and stop our lives and really adhere to COVID appropriate behaviour to minimise loss of countless lives."

Dr Mukherjee said India's crisis should also serve as a warning message to the rest of the world. 

After imposing a national lockdown last year and seeing cases decline by February, cases began to surge again in March. Dr Mukherjee blamed it on people gathering at religious festivals and political rallies as well as a lapse of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. 

"You have to really never throw your guards down and throw caution to the wind. You have to really intercept what the data says and hear the silent footsteps of this virus. I think it is a lesson for all of us who are dealing with this pandemic."