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COVID cases in India continue to climb, what can other countries learn from this?

India has seen 12 straight days of more than 300,000 new COVID cases. How did the situation get so bad, so fast?

MINNEAPOLIS — Dr. Frank Rhame has a soft spot in his heart for India.

He's been there five times throughout his life, for both work and pleasure.

He's now an infectious disease expert at Allina Health and says experts worldwide can learn a lot from what's happening in India right now.

"I don't think there's any country whose case rate went up that fast," Dr. Rhame said.

How fast? Well, just two months ago India was seeing around 12,000 new cases a day.

For perspective, here in the United States, we haven't seen numbers that low since the first few weeks of the pandemic. 

That's crazy low when you consider India's population is nearly four times higher than the U.S.

But a lot can change in just two months.

On Friday, Indian health officials reported 400,000 new daily cases, more than any other country has seen in a single day since the pandemic started.

So, how did it get so bad so fast?

Dr. Rhame says for starters, India has a lot of people crammed into very small areas.

"You're on top of people just all the time. Six foot distancing, that doesn't happen. You can't walk a block without having 100 or 200 people who have been within six feet of you," Dr. Rhame says.

Another factor is the way the government handled things.

Dr. Rhame says the Indian government clamped down too hard at times with strict lockdowns and then reopened too quickly.

That reopening happened just as India was in the middle of an election.

Dr. Rhame says many candidates started holding massive political rallies which later turned into super spreaders.

And he says some of politicians ran their campaigns on the message that the pandemic was over and citizens can start living their normal lives again.

In India, part of normal daily life is large religious gatherings that often attract thousands of people.

"If you haven't seen these festivals, they really get hundreds of thousands, even millions of people together in very densely packed spaces and there are often no masks anywhere," Dr. Rhame said.

So, the virus spread quickly, and Dr. Rhame says hospitals are now struggling to keep up.

Many Indian hospitals are running out of oxygen and other supplies and are health care workers are being forced to treat patients outside because they don't have enough hospital beds.

"People standing outside hospitals on the sidewalks dying. Ambulances lined up outside hospitals unable to unload their patients. People fanning people in respiratory distress because they don't have oxygen. There are family members fanning them. These are awful, awful images."

Images Rhame says we probably won't ever see here in the United States.

He doesn't foresee the situation ever getting that bad here, but he says something similar could happen here, or in any other country that switches too quickly between strict restrictions and no restrictions at all.

"This is a potent virus. This virus is very lethal and if you let up on it, it will really kick you."

There is growing pressure for India to go into another lockdown, including a recommendation from Dr. Anthony Fauci here in the U.S.

The Biden administration has also decided to restrict travel to India.

Those restrictions will go into effect Tuesday morning.

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