India has posted a record rise in deaths from COVID-19 over the last 24 hours, pushing its total fatalities past the 250,000 mark.
Deaths from the coronavirus swelled by 4,205, while daily coronavirus cases rose by 348,421, with India’s overall caseload now surging past 23 million, according to the health ministry’s data on Wednesday.
Many experts suspect the real numbers are much higher, and actual deaths and infections could be five to ten times higher.
India’s COVID-19 infection curve may be showing early signs of flattening, but the decline in the number of new infections is likely to be slow, said Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist.
“It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak,” he was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper.
“There is some indication of the cases plateauing. But we must not forget that this is a very high plateau. We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day.”
India, with a population of 1.35 billion people, currently accounts for one in three of the reported deaths from coronavirus around the world, according to a Reuters news agency tally.
The brutal second wave of COVID-19 has overwhelmed hospitals and medical staff, as well as mortuaries and crematoriums. Drugs and medical oxygen are in short supply.
Dead bodies floating in river
The infections have spread from the cities to small towns and the countryside, ripping through a fragile healthcare system ill-equipped for a crisis of this scale.
Rural parts of India are also running short of wood for traditional Hindu cremations and scores of bodies are washing up on the banks of the Ganges river which flows through the most populous areas of the northern plains.
At least 71 dead bodies were found floating down the river in eastern India’s Bihar state, with the authorities saying they haven’t yet determined the cause of death.
Images on social media of the bodies floating in the river prompted outrage and speculation that they died from COVID-19.
Authorities performed post mortems on Tuesday but said they could not confirm the cause of death due to the decomposition of the bodies.
More corpses were found floating in the river on Tuesday, washing up in Ghazipur district in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state. Police and villagers were at the site, about 50 km (30 miles) from Monday’s incident.
“We are trying to find out where did these dead bodies come from? How did they get here?” said Mangla Prasad Singh, a local official.
Surinder, a resident of Ghazipur who uses one name, said villagers didn’t have enough wood to cremate their dead on land.
“Due to the shortage of wood, the dead are being buried in the water,” he said. “Bodies from around 12-13 villages have been buried in the water.”
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are experiencing rising COVID-19 cases as infections in India grow faster than anywhere else in the world.
Even in the capital New Delhi, many COVID-19 victims are abandoned by their relatives after cremation, leaving volunteers to wash the ashes, pray over them, and then take them to scatter into the river, rituals usually conducted by the family.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday said a variant of COVID-19 first detected in India last year has been found in at least 44 countries.
The UN health body has designated the virus strain as a “variant of concern” based on preliminary research – alongside those that were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil – that requires heightened tracking and analysis.
Vaccines are also running short, especially in Maharashtra state around the financial centre of Mumbai, and in New Delhi, two of India’s hardest-hit regions.
India’s second wave of the pandemic has increased calls for a nationwide lockdown and prompted more and more states to impose tougher restrictions that have hurt businesses and the wider economy.
Modi cancels G7 trip to UK
Meanwhile, India’s foreign ministry late on Tuesday said Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not travel to Britain for the Group of Seven (G7) summit next month because of the coronavirus situation in the country.
“While appreciating the invitation to the Prime Minister by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to attend the G7 Summit as a Special Invitee, given the prevailing COVID situation, it has been decided that the Prime Minister will not attend the G7 Summit in person,” the ministry said in a statement.
Modi has been criticised for allowing huge gatherings at a religious festival and holding large election rallies during the past two months even as cases surged.
US President Joe Biden is expected to join other leaders at a G7 summit chaired by Britain’s Johnson in Cornwall, southwestern England, on June 11-13.