The situation with the COVID-19 pandemic in India is going “from bad to worse,” a senior government official has said.
“We are facing an increasingly severe and intense situation, more so surely in some districts. But the whole country is potentially at risk,” Vinod K Paul, chairman of the government’s expert panel on vaccine administration said at the weekly health ministry briefing on Tuesday.
India on Wednesday reported 53,480 new cases of the coronavirus, health ministry data showed – the second day that cases have risen less than the day before.
But the number of deaths was at its highest since mid-December, according to a Reuters news agency tally, with 354 people dying of the coronavirus in the last 24 hours, the ministry said, taking total mortalities to 162,468.
India has been reporting a spike in cases this month, with its richest state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital of Mumbai, accounting for most of its caseload.
More than 68,000 new coronavirus cases were reported on Monday, the highest in a single day in five months. On Tuesday, at least 56,000 fresh cases were reported across India, with Maharashtra accounting for more than 31,000 of them.
Paul said it was not likely that mutated strains were behind the surge after a significant tapering down in January.
On Tuesday, India’s health secretary bluntly told the federal states to get a grip on lax coronavirus prevention measures “right now” to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed by a surge in infections.
“The current rise in cases … has the potential of overwhelming healthcare systems unless checked right now,” Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter to the states.
“Many districts in the country are seeing clusters of cases emerging because of specific events and/or places where crowding happens, or where a large number of people are in close contact coupled with a lack of a COVID-appropriate behaviour.”
With more than 12 million cases of the coronavirus reported since the beginning of the outbreak last year, India is the third worst affected country in the world, after the United States and Brazil.
Bhushan asked states to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing, and to increase testing, tracing and quarantining, or else face “heavy costs”.
Despite the warnings, top politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself have been addressing rallies and meetings of tens of thousands of people, sitting or standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with only a handful wearing masks.
Multi-phase elections in four big states began last week and will run through next month.
Maharashtra is considering imposing stricter curbs from Thursday, but opposition parties and industrialists have opposed a lockdown, saying it hurts the poor the most.
India has accelerated its nationwide immunisation campaign, simplifying the process, opening more vaccination centres and restricting exports after criticism that more of its production was going abroad than to India’s own population.