Indian coronavirus cases surge as health system staggers
MUMBAI, (Reuters) – India reported the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases for a second day on Friday, surpassing 330,000 new cases, as it struggles with a health system overwhelmed by patients and plagued by accidents.
Deaths in the past 24 hours also jumped to a record 2,263, the health ministry said, while officials across northern and western India, including the capital, New Delhi, warned most hospitals were full and running out of oxygen.
The surge in cases came as a fire in a hospital in a suburb of Mumbai treating COVID-19 patients killed 13 people on Friday, the latest accident to hit a facility crowded with people infected with the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, 22 COVID-19 patients died at a public hospital in Maharashtra state when their oxygen supply ran out due to a leaking tank, while at least nine coronavirus patients died in a hospital fire in Mumbai last month.
“It is grim. It is grave … there is an extreme shortage of ICU beds,” T.S. Singh Deo, health minister of the eastern state of Chhattisgarh told Reuters.
“We’ll need to be very careful in the rural areas. If it spreads there, then it will be out of control,” Deo said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has been criticised for relaxing coronavirus controls too quickly, met chief ministers of the worst-affected states, including the capital Delhi, the western state of Maharashtra and Modi’s home state of Gujarat, to discuss the crisis.
Daily infections hit 332,730, up from 314,835 the previous day when India set a new record, surpassing one set by the United States in January of 297,430 new cases. The U.S. tally has since fallen.
Delhi reported more than 26,000 new cases and 306 deaths, or about one fatality every five minutes, the fastest since the pandemic began.
Medical oxygen and beds have become scarce, with major hospitals putting up notices saying they have no room for any more patients and police being deployed to secure oxygen supplies.
“We regret to inform that we are suspending any new patient admissions in all our hospitals in Delhi … till oxygen supplies stabilise,” Max Healthcare, which runs a network of hospitals, said on Twitter as it appealed for oxygen.
Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan in the United States, said it was now as if there was no social safety net for Indians.
“Everyone is fighting for their own survival and trying to protect their loved ones. This is hard to watch,” he said.
In New Delhi, people losing loved ones are turning to makeshift facilities that are undertaking mass burials and cremations as funeral services get swamped.
Amid the despair, recriminations have begun.
Health experts say India got complacent in the winter, when new cases were running at about 10,000 a day and seemed to be under control, and lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings.
“Indians let down their collective guard. Instead of being bombarded with messages exhorting us to be vigilant, we heard self-congratulatory declarations of victory from our leaders, now cruelly exposed as mere self-assured hubris,” wrote Zarir F Udwadia, a pulmonologist and a member of the Maharashtra state government’s task force, in the Times of India.
The government ordered an extensive lockdown last year in the early stages of the pandemic but it has been wary of the economic costs and upheaval to the lives of legions of poor migrant workers of a reimposition of tight restrictions.
A new more infectious variants of the virus, in particular a “double mutant” variant that originated in India, may have helped accelerate the surge, experts said.
Canada banned flights from India, joining Britain, United Arab Emirates and Singapore blocking arrivals.
India, a major producer of vaccines, has begun a vaccination campaign but only a tiny fraction of the population has had a shot.
Authorities have announced vaccines will be available to anyone over 18 from May 1, but experts say there will not be enough for the 600 million people who will be eligible.
“It is tragic, the mismanagement. For a country known to be the pharmacy of the world, to have less than 1.5% of the population vaccinated is a failure difficult to fathom,” Kaushik Basu, a professor at Cornell University and a former economic adviser to the Indian government, said on Twitter.