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COVID-19 Cases Falling In India, But Disrupted Health System Still Causing Deaths

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are signs the world's biggest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreak in India may now be easing. Authorities there have been confirming fewer daily infections, but several Indian states have revised their death tolls upwards. Only now are they discovering just how many people the virus has killed. And as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai, the pandemic there may have caused the death of more people than just coronavirus patients.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This winter, Jaspreet Singh's father was diagnosed with cancer in their hometown of Chandigarh in northern India. He needed chemotherapy, but neither father nor son had been vaccinated against COVID-19, so it was nerve-wracking, Singh recalls, when at the height of the pandemic, he had to wheel his father through a crowded hospital lobby.

JASPREET SINGH: About 200 or 300 people standing there. You don't know who has COVID, who doesn't. And nobody's maintaining anything. People don't wear masks over there. You have to say you wear masks.

FRAYER: Sure enough, they both ended up catching the coronavirus. Singh was beside himself.

SINGH: Very worried, yeah, very worried because he was diagnosed with cancer. And he's 83 of age.

FRAYER: Miraculously, he says, they both recovered. But Singh is still traumatized by the risks he had to take. The family's doctor, Sandeep Tula, estimates only a third of his cancer patients have been able to get care during this latest COVID crisis. Many couldn't reach the hospital because public transit was halted for months.

SANDEEP TULA: And they came two to three months after that with a huge growth - breast cancer spreading somewhere else.

FRAYER: This has happened in lots of countries, but doctors and patients say it's been worse in India, where COVID-19 pretty much collapsed an already underfunded health system. Dr. Tula had to delay radiation treatments because technicians had been reassigned to COVID wards.

SINGH: It was very tough to say, yeah, it will affect your prognosis. And this is very bad. But there is nothing we can do about it. Looking into their eyes and saying this, that's the reason you're going to die, maybe soon.

FRAYER: And even now, with coronavirus cases falling, surgeries are still on hold in many hospitals. Operating rooms were converted into COVID wards, and it takes time to switch things back. Scientists say India's real COVID-19 death toll may be six times the official figures, and that doesn't cover other victims, people like Somya Lakhani's uncle in New Delhi. He had kidney problems and got dialysis three times a week until one day in April, when his regular hospital turned him away.

SOMYA LAKHANI: They said that, OK, great, sir, but we're so sorry, we need an RT-PCR test.

FRAYER: A coronavirus test, which was really hard to get at the time.

LAKHANI: Now, you have to remember, this is end of April, when everything was falling apart. Hospitals didn't have oxygen.

FRAYER: Lakhani's family worked the phones. They finally got him a test after four days. But then the results were delayed. After her uncle missed three dialysis sessions in a row, the hospital called to say they'd make an exception. Bring him in, they said. But it was too late. He died that morning.

LAKHANI: People, when they give you condolence messages, they always see that oh, you know, but at least he was, you know, he was not young. You know, he had seen so much life. You know, he has grandchildren. And he was a retired man. And, you know, he lived a good life, you know. But the point is not that. The point is the man had another 10 years on him.

FRAYER: Lakhani says her uncle may not have died of COVID-19, but her family considers him one of those lost to the pandemic. And India may never know just how many lives were ultimately claimed by the world's biggest and deadliest COVID outbreak.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.