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Coronavirus Update: India’s COVID-19 crisis is a ‘crime against humanity,’ says prize-winning author as nation sets new case record

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The global tally of confirmed cases of the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 headed closer to 150 million on Thursday, as novelist and political activist Arundhati Roy said the deepening crisis in India is a crime against humanity.

India added another record of 379,257 new cases on Thursday, according to its health ministry, breaking the record set a day earlier. At least 3,645 Indians died, boosting the country’s death toll to 204,832. India has the second highest case tally in the world after the U.S. at 18.4 million. Those numbers are understood to be understated given the enormous pressure on the healthcare system and a fragmented reporting system.

The U.S. is advising its citizens to leave India as soon as it is safe to do so, as hospitals clamor for oxygen, tests and personal protective equipment. The U.S. Embassy is warning in an alert on its website that access to medial care is becoming extremely limited. “U.S. citizens who wish to depart India should take advantage of available commercial transportation options now,” the alert reads.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

The U.S. has sent $100 million’s worth of equipment to India in a military plane, and President Joe Biden has promised more help. “Just as India sent assistance to the United States when our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,” the White House said in a statement.

“In addition, U.S. state governments, private companies, nongovernment organizations, and thousands of Americans from across the country have mobilized to deliver vital oxygen, related equipment, and essential supplies for Indian hospitals to support frontline healthcare workers and the people of India most affected during the current outbreak,” said the statement.

White House deputy press s secretaru  Karine Jean-Pierre said the first of two assistance flights left the U.S. for India at around 8 p.m. and midnight on Wednesday.

“The planes carried the first tranche of assistance, which includes oxygen cylinders, rapid diagnostic tests and N95 masks to protect frontline workers,” she told reporters at a briefing. “Additional flights carrying the remaining assistance, including oxygen generators and concentrators are scheduled to depart in the upcoming days. “

See: Fauci says world shares blame for India’s COVID crisis by failing to coordinate global pandemic response

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis, and a failure to halt political rallies that have become superspreader events with tens of thousands gathering closely without face masks. He has also been slammed for failing to cancel a Hindu festival that brought thousands of people to a ritual bath in the river Ganges, also without face masks.

Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker prize for her novel “The God of Small Things,” added her voice to the chorus of outrage in an essay for the Guardian, highlighting Modi’s premature victory lap in the pandemic when he boasted in January of India’s success in containing the virus at the World Economic Forum.

Don’t miss: Letter from India: ‘We live in mortal fear of COVID-19’

A few months later and the country’s crematoria and graveyards are so overburdened that funeral pyres are being improvised in parks and car parks, she wrote.

“Where is the COVID-specific infrastructure and the ‘people’s movement’ against the virus that Modi boasted about in his speech?” Roy asked. “Hospital beds are unavailable. Doctors and medical staff are at breaking point. Friends call with stories about wards with no staff and more dead patients than live ones. People are dying in hospital corridors, on roads and in their homes.”

There was further outrage when Twitter confirmed that it had blocked some material from being viewed inside India, after being ordered to do so by Modi’s government. The government made an emergency order to censor the tweets, Twitter
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revealed on Lumen, a database that keeps track of global government orders concerning online content, the BBC reported.

While Twitter did not provide details of which tweets were hidden, media reports suggest they include messages holding Modi responsible for the crisis and demanding his resignation, as well as calls for an end to political rallies.

India’s vaccination drive has also slowed, with the health ministry saying Thursday that it had administered fewer than 2.2 million doses in the past 24 hours, down from an average of 3 million a day early in the program. About 26 million people have been fully vaccinated, representing just 2% of the population. That will make it difficult for Modi to meet his goal of inoculating 300 million people by summer.

That compares with the progress wealthier nations, including the U.S., are making with vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, 234.6 million doses had been administered, and 142.7 million people had received at least one shot, equal to 43% of the population.

More than 98 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 29.5% of the population, meaning they have received two shots of the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc.
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with German partner BioNTech SE
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+1.66%

or Moderna Inc.
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,
or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson
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single-dose vaccine. The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been authorized for use in the U.S.

Among Americans 65 and older, 37.3 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 68% of that group. Almost 45 million people in that age bracket have received a first jab, covering 82% of that population.

See now: What we know about COVID vaccine side effects in women

In other news:

• Moderna said on Thursday that it would boost investment to increase supply at its COVID-19 vaccine-production facilities, in an initiative that could double the number of doses it will be able to produce next year to up to 3 billion. It also raised its manufacturing forecast for 2021 to 800 million to 1 billion doses. The Boston-based company had previously said it was planning to produce 1.4 billion doses in 2022. The ultimate number will depend on how demand will be split between primary vaccines and booster or children’s shots, which require only half-a-dose of active substance.

• BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told German news magazine Der Spiegel that the company is “the final stretches” of preparing a submission for European regulatory approval of its COVID-19 vaccine for use in children above the age of 12. Sahin said the process takes four to six weeks on average and that he expects the two-shot vaccine to be available for 12- to 15 year-olds by June.

The U.S. and other countries are stepping in to help as India’s new coronavirus cases continue to set daily records. The crisis there highlights how one country’s surge could have ripple effects in the global battle against the pandemic.

• Ireland, which has been in lockdown since late December, will reopen retail stores, personal services and nonresidential construction in May with hotels, restaurants and bars to follow sooner than expected in early June, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Thursday, Reuters reported. Coveney said the plan to be signed off by ministers later on Thursday would permit hotels to open their doors again on June 2 with restaurants and pubs — not mentioned a month ago — allowed to serve guests outdoors beginning June 7.

• Romania has detected its first case of the COVID-19 variant that first emerged in India, the “double-mutant’ B.1.617 strain that has two spike proteins instead of one, according to local media. The variant was found in a 26-year-old, who arrived in the Balkan country about a month ago. The Romanian Ministry of Health is currently investigating an outbreak of COVID-19 among construction workers in Colonia Bod in the county of Brasov. The eight workers came to Romania from India, and five of them tested positive for COVID-19.

• Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics rolled out stricter coronavirus countermeasures on Wednesday, including a plan to test athletes daily, as they try to reassure a Japanese public made increasingly skeptical by the resurgent pandemic, Reuters reported. With just three months until the Games, postponed last summer, the country has been hurt by a slow-moving vaccination program that has raised concerns bout the viability of the event.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness rose above 149.8 million on Thursday, as the death toll climbed above 3.15 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. Almost 87 million people have recovered from COVID, the data show.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in cases and deaths by wide margins, with 32.2 million cases, or more than a fifth of the global total, and 574,447 deaths, or almost a fifth of the worldwide toll. 

Brazil is third after India with 14.5 million cases and second by fatalities at 398,185.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 215,918 and 2.3 million cases, for the world’s 15th highest case tally.

The U.K. has had 4.4 million cases and 127,756 deaths, the fifth highest in the world and the highest in Europe.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 102,461 confirmed cases and 4,845 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

What’s the economy saying?

The U.S. economy charged ahead in the first three months of the year, thanks to more Americans getting vaccinated, fewer people contracting the coronavirus and Washington enacting a $1.9 trillion relief bill, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

Gross domestic product, the official scorecard for the U.S. economy, rose at a 6.4% annual pace in the first quarter, the government said Thursday. Growth would have even stronger if supply bottlenecks and shortages of key materials hadn’t curbed production.

Economists predict even faster growth in the months ahead if the bottlenecks ease, coronavirus cases keep falling and most government public health restrictions fall by the wayside.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal had forecast a 6.5% increase in GDP on an annualized basis. The U.S. expanded at a more modest 4.3% pace at the end of last year, when a record rise in coronavirus cases stunted the rebound.

Read: Fed sticks to easy-money strategy even as it sees strengthening economy

“With economic activity above pre-pandemic levels, the recession is clearly over,” said chief economist Chris Low of FHN Financial. “The economy is roaring and should continue to roar as services reopen this summer.”

Jobless-benefit claims fell to 553,000 last week from a revised 566,000 a week earlier, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday, as MarketWatch’s Greg Robb reported.

With the revisions, this is the lowest level of claims since the pandemic struck last year. Economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal had been looking for a drop to 528,000 new claims.

Claims in the prior week were revised from the initial estimate of 547,000.

The four-week moving average for unemployment-benefits claims, which smooths out volatility, fell by 44,000 to 611,750. That is the lowest level since March 2020.

Stocks rose on Thursday with the Dow Jones Industrial Average
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higher and the S&P 500
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and Nasdaq Composite
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reaching record levels early in the session.

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