Last month, BofA’s closely-watched Global Fund Manager survey revealed that for the first time since the onset of the crisis, COVID-19 (or something related to it) was no longer seen as the top tail risk.
It was an anecdotal assessment, but it nevertheless spoke to waning anxiety. The vaccine push in the US was accelerating and the stimulus writing was on the wall in big letters. The world’s largest economy was poised to boom, and the Fed was unequivocal in its commitment not just to countenancing an overheat, but to playing an active role in engineering one.
Sure, Europe was struggling to coordinate inoculations. And, yes, everyone realized flare-ups were inevitable. Finally, no, Brazil wasn’t fixed. But generally speaking, the assumption was that science had triumphed and the virus was on the back foot, even if it was likely to keep exacting a tragic toll on humanity for several months longer.
The April vintage of the same BofA survey showed fund managers were still relatively sanguine (figure below).
It made more sense, investors reckoned, to worry about inflation or, relatedly, a bond market tantrum in the developed world, than to fret over vaccine rollout, or anything else to do with the virus, for that matter.
This week, the world was reminded that, in fact, COVID is still the top risk.
Five days ago, I called the rapidly worsening situation in India “a nightmare.” By Thursday, I called it a humanitarian crisis. By Friday, I suggested the US might need to intervene.
On Saturday, The New York Times ran a feature story called “As COVID-19 Devastates India, Deaths Go Undercounted.” The images (many depicting the mass burning of bodies) are nothing short of horrific.
In the simplest possible terms, the country has lost control. India is reporting in excess of 300,000 new cases per day, but as the Times wrote, experts now believe the figures (which are records for any country during the pandemic) likely represent “just a fraction of the real reach of the virus’s spread.”
The seven-day moving average for new daily cases was around 60,000 at the end of last month. It was near 294,000 on Saturday, according to WHO (figure below). If these figures do, in fact, represent “just a fraction” (as the Times put it) of the virus’s reach in India, that would appear to suggest that at least some observers believe a million people or more may be contracting COVID each day in the country.
I quoted a friend from Delhi on Monday in the linked article (above). She told me that the general sense among the populace is that venturing outdoors (let alone going to a vaccination site) is seen as a risk too big to take. The Times echoed the sentiment, noting that “millions of people refuse to even step outside.”
The official numbers show more than 2,000 people dying from COVID every 24 hours (figure below). But, as documented here earlier this week, those figures are likely nowhere near accurate.
Crucially, one gets the distinct impression that this situation is orders of magnitude more acute than other instances of countries undercounting COVID deaths, either deliberately or simply because they didn’t have the resources. In India, it sounds as though the real daily death toll could be exponentially higher.
One epidemiologist at the University of Michigan called the official numbers “a complete massacre of data.” In remarks to the Times, he suggested the death toll could be as much as five times higher than officially reported. In other words, it’s conceivable that as many as 10,000 people are dying every 24 hours in India from COVID.
At cremation sites, workers simply ascribe deaths to “sickness,” sometimes on orders from superiors. Political pressure is surely a factor.
Over a period of a dozen days this month, one site in Bhopal reported just 41 COVID-related deaths, even as a survey conducted by the Times showed more than 1,000 fatalities.
During the same timeframe, official tallies for daily deaths In Gujarat were as low as 73, but local reporters who visited cremation and burial grounds said the real numbers may have exceeded 600.
“On April 16, as per the State health bulletin, total deaths were 78, but from seven cities 689 bodies were either cremated or buried following COVID-19 protocols on disposal,” The Hindu reported, adding that “the State, overwhelmed by the second wave of the pandemic, is witnessing a tale of two sets of data: One from the Health Department and the other emerging from hospitals and crematoria/burial grounds, and there is a massive mismatch between the numbers.”
The video (below) was sent to me this weekend by my friend in Delhi. I can’t verify its authenticity, but I have no reason to doubt it. It’s entirely possible it came from social media and it mirrors the visuals now being broadcast to the world by every major media outlet, including the Times.
The surge in India is being blamed, in part, on a so-called “double mutant” variant, B.1.617. A quick check of outbreak.info, a site that utilizes data from GISAID, shows the cumulative prevalence of the lineage in India is up to 14% from 11% just days ago. For the rest of the world, that figure is listed as <0.5%.
The Times went on to lament that “less than 10% of Indians have gotten even one [vaccine] dose, despite India being the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer.”
This situation isn’t tenable. It likely requires an international response. At this juncture, I’d have to agree with former Lehman trader Mark Cudmore who, last week, warned that this presents a serious risk to global markets.
Travel bans, flight restrictions and other protocols taken as precautions will prove woefully inadequate to contain an epidemic spreading unchecked in a nation of 1.4 billion people. The variant, to the extent it’s something the world needs to be concerned about, will almost surely become more prevalent globally if something isn’t done to bring things under control in India.
“Scientists caution it is too early to know for sure how pernicious the new variant emerging in India really is,” the Times went on to say Saturday, noting that scientists are concerned that “huge setbacks in India, Brazil and other places raise the likelihood that the virus will mutate in ways that could outflank the current vaccines.”