India’s coronavirus crisis intensifies as nations pledge aid

With 352,991 new cases, India's total caseload has crossed 17 million.
With 352,991 new cases, India's total caseload has crossed 17 million.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BENGALURU (REUTERS) - India’s coronavirus cases hit a record peak for a fifth day on Monday (April 26) as countries including Britain, Germany and the United States pledged to send urgent medical aid to help tackle the crisis overwhelming its hospitals.

Infections in the past 24 hours rose to 352,991, with overcrowded hospitals in Delhi and nationwide turning away patients after running out of supplies of medical oxygen and beds.

"Currently the hospital is in beg-and-borrow mode and it is an extreme crisis situation,” said a spokesman of the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in the capital.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged all citizens to be vaccinated and exercise caution, saying the storm of infections had shaken the nation.

In some of the worst-hit cities, including New Delhi, bodies were being burnt in makeshift facilities offering mass services.

Television channel NDTV broadcast images of three health workers in the eastern state of Bihar pulling a body along the ground on its way to cremation, as stretchers ran short.

“If you’ve never been to a cremation, the smell of death never leaves you,” Vipin Narang, a political science professor at MIT in the United States, said on Twitter.

“My heart breaks for all my friends and family in Delhi and India going through this hell.”

The United States will immediately send raw materials for vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear to help India respond to its massive surge in infections, President Joe Biden said on Sunday.

Germany will send oxygen and medical aid in the coming days, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday, while the European Commission has also said it aims to send oxygen and medicines.

India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has a tally of 17.31 million infections and 195,123 deaths, after 2,812 deaths overnight, health ministry data showed.

Health experts say the death count is probably far higher.

The scale of the second wave knocked oil prices on Monday, as traders worried about a fall in fuel demand in the world’s third-biggest oil importer.

Rally backlash

Politicians, especially Mr Modi, have faced criticism for holding rallies attended by thousands of people, packed close together in stadiums and grounds, despite a brutal second wave of infections.

Several cities have ordered curfews, while police have been deployed to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.

Still, about 8.6 million voters were expected to cast ballots on Monday in the eastern state of West Bengal, in the penultimate part of an eight-phase election that will wrap up this week.

Voting for local elections in other parts of India included the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has been reporting an average of 30,000 infections a day.

Mr Modi’s plea on vaccinations came after inoculations peaked at 4.5 million doses on April 5, but have since averaged about 2.7 million a day, government figures show.

Several states, including Maharashtra, the richest, halted vaccinations in some places on Sunday, saying supplies were not available.

Supply has fallen short of demand as the inoculation campaign was widened this month, while companies struggle to boost output, partly because of a shortage of raw material and a fire at a facility making the AstraZeneca dose.

Hospitals in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat are among those facing an acute shortage of oxygen, doctors said.

Just seven ICU beds of a total of 1,277 were available in 166 private hospitals designated to treat the virus in the western state’s largest city of Ahmedabad, data showed.

“The problem is grim everywhere, especially in smaller hospitals, which do not have central oxygen lines and use cylinders,” said Mona Desai, former president of the Ahmedabad Medical Association.