India has reported a total of 297,535 coronavirus infections, surpassing the United Kingdom to become the fourth worst-affected country in the world, behind only the United States, Brazil and Russia.
The number of infections increased by 10,956 on Friday from the previous day, and the death toll reached 8,498, India’s ministry of health and family welfare said.
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Two and a half months of nationwide lockdown imposed in March kept numbers of infections relatively low. But with restrictions easing in recent weeks, cases have shot up, raising questions about whether authorities have done enough to avert the catastrophe.
The lockdown, eased earlier this month, is now largely being enforced in high-risk areas.
The spiking caseload came after India allowed the reopening of shops, shopping centres, manufacturing and religious places. Subways, schools, colleges and cinemas, however, remain shuttered nationwide.
The lockdown kept transmission low but in a large population of 1.3 billion, people remain susceptible and the campaign against the virus is likely to go on for months, said Balram Bhargava, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.
Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai are the worst-hit cities, and Bhargava said urban residents have a greater chance of contracting the virus.
Infections in rural areas have surged, however, after migrant workers who left cities and towns after they lost jobs returned to their home towns.
‘Ticking time bomb’
“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum, said.
“Unless and until the government increases its spending on healthcare, things won’t change. A lot of people will die,” he said.
As the number of infections surges in India, patients are finding it difficult to get admitted to coronavirus-designated hospitals.
In capital New Delhi, a sprawling capital region of 46 million and home to some of India’s highest concentration of hospitals, a pregnant woman’s death after a frantic hunt for a sickbed was a worrying sign about the country’s ability to cope with the wave of new coronavirus cases.
“She kept begging us to save her life, but we couldn’t do anything,” Shailendra Kumar said, after driving his sister-in-law, Neelam, and her husband for hours, only to be turned away at eight public and private hospitals.
Kuldeep Kumar has been enraged since he lost his mother last week. Ranbiri Devi was undergoing gall bladder cancer treatment at a state-run hospital in New Delhi when she tested positive for coronavirus.
The hospital asked her to leave since it was not dealing with COVID-19 patients. After a long struggle, Kumar managed to get his mother admitted to a private hospital, but the 53-year-old died due to the delay in treatment.
Strained healthcare system
In Mumbai, India’s worst-hit city with more than 54,000 cases, patients are flooding into hospitals.
“There are increasing cases every day. We are working overtime amid a shortage of health workers to tackle the situation,” state resident doctors association secretary Ashish Karande said.
“We opened new wards and converted hospitals into dedicated COVID-19 facilities, but they get filled quickly. The situation is bound to turn critical with the lifting of the lockdown.”
New Delhi’s city government this week predicted the caseload will balloon 20-fold to more than half a million by the end of July, which the healthcare system appears woefully ill-prepared for.
“The surge is clearly visible now so we are in for a tough fight,” said Dr Mukesh Kumar, a neurologist at Delhi’s private Max Hospital who, like most of his colleagues, has been pulled in to care for COVID-19 patients.
“We don’t know when this is going to peak,” said Dr Deven Juneja, who works at the same hospital.