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Global Health

Tragedy in India

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
May 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 17


India is in the middle of a public health nightmare. COVID-19 is ravaging the country, which is experiencing a devastating second wave of infections. I’d like to offer our support to American Chemical Society members, colleagues, and the scientific community at large who live in India or who have loved ones there.

In April, India overtook Brazil as the country in the world with the most cases of the disease after the US. For the past 2 weeks, India has been reporting more than 300,000 new cases daily. The country reported a particularly bad spike on Thursday, May 6, a day that broke all previous records, with more than 410,000 new cases and just short of 4,000 deaths in 24 h.

The statistics are devastating and may be worse than we know: a recent report by the Guardian quoted a figure by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an organization based in the US, which estimated that “India is only detecting 3–4% of actual cases.” And epidemiologists say that the more than 230,000 deaths in the country so far is only a fraction of the real scale of the tragedy.

India’s health system is breaking at the seams. As the second-most-populous country in the world—it is home to 18% of the global population—and one that had not invested significantly in health, its health system was already under pressure. This is evidenced by the fact that India still has cases of diseases that have been eradicated or mitigated elsewhere, such as leprosy, and it has one of the world’s worst incidence rates of HIV.

Hospitals are at capacity. Oxygen is scarce, and a black market is booming for the coveted cylinders. Vaccines are also scarce—vaccination centers are having to turn people away. But the magnitude of this crisis should not all be blamed on the health system. A contributing factor to the devastation of this second wave is the presence of new, more transmissible, and treatment-resistant variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Another contributing factor is politics. The country is reaching the end of some state elections, and campaigning has proceeded apace. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, whose party has continued to host public rallies for the elections, has been accused of declaring victory on COVID-19 prematurely and then failing to contain the rise of the virus in this second wave.

The principal scientific adviser to the Indian government described a third phase for the pandemic in India as inevitable, exacerbating worries about what this may mean for global recovery. At C&EN, we’ll continue to monitor the situation.

In other news, let me tell you about a landmark ruling relating to climate protection and the rights of future generations. At the end of April, Germany’s top court ruled that the country must update its climate law to stipulate how it plans to reduce carbon emissions to nearly zero by 2050.

The plaintiffs, who included young farmers from low-lying areas of Germany, argued that their farms and livelihoods would be swept up by rising sea levels if action is not taken immediately. Their legal challenge was backed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups. In its ruling, the court sided with the plaintiffs and agreed that Germany must do more to protect citizens whose lives and livelihoods are at risk.

According to existing law, by 2030, Germany’s carbon emissions should be at least 55% lower than in 1990 and nearly zero by 2050. The court concluded that the country had not made enough plans for what do beyond 2030 and had postponed “major emission reduction burdens” beyond that date, according to court papers. Germany’s government is now drawing up appropriate legislation.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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