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News Brief: India's COVID-19 Surge, Religious Stampede, Kamala Harris' Role

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was a time early in the pandemic when you'd hear people say at least the virus isn't spreading fast in India yet because the population there's so dense. That would be really bad. That is happening now, and it is indeed very bad.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

India broke its own record on Friday. It reported 386,000 new coronavirus cases in a day. The number of deaths is considered unreliable, but we know it's a lot. Crematoriums are so overloaded that crews in Delhi are converting a crematorium meant for dogs into one for people.

MARTIN: NPR India correspondent Lauren Frayer is with us this morning from Mumbai. Lauren, thanks for being here.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So as we keep saying, the situation in India just keeps getting worse. Just describe to us the problem at this point. How bad is it?

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, just staggering case numbers more and more every day and deaths, almost certainly an undercount because whole towns here have virtually run out of test kits. People are dying at home unable to get care. We're still seeing severe shortages of ICU beds, medical oxygen, antiviral drugs. Crematoriums are overwhelmed, and social media has become this just flood of desperate pleas. Let me just play you an example. This is a young woman named Lavanya Sharma (ph) in Delhi, and she posted this clip of herself on Twitter.

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LAVANYA SHARMA: Both my parents are COVID positive, and my mother urgently needs a ventilator. No one is there to help me. Please help.

FRAYER: You can hear the desperation in her voice. And strangers come to one another's rescues on social media. Lavanya posted an update afterwards saying she actually got an ambulance for her mom. But it shows the breakdown of the health system here. And that is why the U.S. State Department is now telling Americans to leave India as soon as they can.

MARTIN: India is actually one of the largest producers of COVID-19 vaccines, though, right? So how is their own vaccination campaign going?

FRAYER: Yeah. About 10% of people here have had one dose. Less than 2% of the population have gotten both. Vaccine centers where I am here in Mumbai just shut down today abruptly for lack of supply. Theoretically, tomorrow, eligibility is supposed to open up to anyone over 18. But so many states have already said they don't have vaccines. And this is a big embarrassment for India because, as you said, it's the world's biggest vaccine maker. India had been exporting vaccines; now it's importing them. The first batch of Russia's Sputnik vaccines is supposed to arrive tomorrow.

MARTIN: So the U.S. and other countries are sending aid in the form of oxygen, PPE and raw materials to help make vaccines. Is that enough?

FRAYER: I mean, it's a massive relief effort, but the challenge is speeding all of that aid to the neediest patients. And India has supply chain problems. I mean, the tanker trucks haven't been communicating well with the oxygen warehouses, local governments. I mean, people are getting sick everywhere. They're lacking staff and coordination. India is notorious, though, for spending less on public health than most other countries. And so we're seeing the problems. I mean, every morning, we hear of dozens of patients dying in hospitals. They managed to get hospital beds, and they're dying because their oxygen is running out there while oxygen is arriving in the airport nearby.

MARTIN: Is the population locked down there, Lauren?

FRAYER: We are. I'm under lockdown here in Mumbai. It's really strict. You're not allowed to even go out for a jog. But it's a state-by-state issue. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi was 10 days ago holding election rallies in parts of the countries that were not under lockdown. Now we're seeing spikes of infections there. The government's reasoning for not imposing a nationwide lockdown is that lockdowns are painful. The economy shrank 24% last spring under lockdown. And so it's really a last resort.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. Israelis were just starting to turn the corner from the coronavirus pandemic, getting back to normal life, and then they awakened today to news of a horrible accident.

INSKEEP: Crowds gathered for a Jewish religious festival in northern Israel and something panicked the crowd. In the stampede, at least 44 people died.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is with us from Jerusalem. Daniel, this happened late last night in Israel. What details can you share at this point?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, it happened on an annual Jewish holiday, Lag B'Omer. This is when ultra-Orthodox Jews come in enormous numbers to the tomb of a revered rabbi and mystic from the second century. This is in the Galilee in the mountains of northern Israel. So we're talking about a huge complex with stairs and walkways leading to areas where there are big bonfires. Local media are estimating about 100,000 people there last night. And what happened was there were enormous crowds squeezed into one passageway. One eyewitness who spoke from his hospital bed on local television said that around 1 a.m., crowds were pushing into each other, trying to get through. People were getting hot. The floor was getting slippery. And then suddenly, dozens of people just collapsed into each other, fell on the ground, and then more people collapsed onto them. He found himself in a pile of people screaming, people reciting a Jewish prayer that's traditionally recited before one's death. This eyewitness said it took a long time for police and paramedics at the site to just untangle the piles of people. And it's being described as Israel's biggest mass casualty civilian disaster not counting wars.

MARTIN: How was it that so many people were allowed to gather? I mean, I know Israel is doing better on the pandemic front, but still.

ESTRIN: Right. I mean, that is the big question being asked here. Big crowds were expected. It's the largest annual public event in Israel where hundreds of thousands usually attend over the course of a couple days. What happened was that people were not allowed to attend last year because of the pandemic. This year, after the vaccination campaign and the low infections, the event was allowed to happen. It was going to be the first mass gathering in Israel since the pandemic. But the focus this year was on COVID safety. So police were limiting the number of bonfires, limiting the number of people who could attend each bonfire, figuring out how to get in only the vaccinated or people who took COVID tests. But apparently, there was just so much excitement about this event that didn't take place last year. And because the event this year was one day instead of two days, that may have been what led to these crowds happening at this more limited event. So there is still a lot of finger-pointing this morning. An investigation has been ordered up looking at whether police failed here.

MARTIN: A lot of questions, too, I imagine, from people. I mean, it just - it hasn't happened that long ago, so I imagine people are trying to contact their loved ones.

ESTRIN: Yeah. This is - I mean, people are looking for answers. And first of all, there have been safety concerns at this big annual event for a long time. But it feels like we're still in this chaotic situation. I mean, overnight, kids at the site were lost trying to match parents with kids. The cellphone service was not working. This morning, authorities still trying to identify bodies.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Rachel.

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MARTIN: There was a pretty remarkable moment on Wednesday night. President Biden entered the House chamber and spoke to the women behind him, making history.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words. And it's about time.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the vice president and speaker of the House sit behind the president at any joint session of Congress. And this is the first time both of those offices are held by women. Kamala Harris is the first female vice president, the No. 2 of a man who was himself vice president once upon a time. So what has her role been in these first 100 days?

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe with us. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. I'm going to quote John Nance Garner because why not? He was FDR's former vice president, and he said that the vice presidency, quote, "wasn't worth a warm bucket of spit." How one does in the job depends a lot on how much space a vice president is given, right? How much space does she have? How is Harris defining her role?

RASCOE: She's really embraced and celebrated the historic nature of her position. Harris and her supporters say she's expanding the view of what normal looks like. But as John Nance Garner said, it is a complicated role because you're not the No. 1. You're the No. 2. And part of the job for a vice president is to not outshine the president. So Harris hasn't done a lot of attention-grabbing things yet in her job, but Biden and Harris have made clear that they are partners. Here's Harris in an interview with CNN earlier this week.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: He and I are in almost every meeting together, have made almost every decision together. I'm not going to talk about our private conversations, of course, but I can tell you that it is often the case that, as I will ask his opinion about things, he will ask my opinion.

RASCOE: And the spotlight is much more on Harris than a typical vice president because of her identity, of course, but also because of Biden's age and questions about whether he will run again.

MARTIN: And, of course, not only is Kamala Harris a woman, she's also a person of color. How is she using her role to talk about race?

RASCOE: Her words carry a lot of weight. She obviously has a lived experience, but she hasn't been the White House spokesperson on race. The White House is trying to talk about, you know, weaving equity into every policy and action. I spoke to Glynda Carr, who is president of Higher Heights for America PAC, which is focused on getting progressive Black women elected. She dismissed the idea from some critics that Harris may not be impacting policy. Here's some more of what she had to say.

GLYNDA CARR: People are discounting the significance and the leverage and influence she can have being the first and last person in the room to help shape President Biden's thoughts on budget policies and policy innovations.

RASCOE: Carr said she believes that Harris is at her best when she's out meeting with people and that she will be a big asset to the Biden administration when she can do more of that.

MARTIN: I mean, specifically, she's been given a responsibility for a tough problem working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries in Central America to talk about migration. How has she managed that?

RASCOE: She's tasked with the root causes of the surge of migration that won't be fixed overnight. The White House has stressed that she's not in charge of the border, but that's a nuanced point that might be difficult to convey to the general public, that she's just over the diplomacy.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe with a look at Kamala Harris' first 100 days in office. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.