India’s total coronavirus cases have surged past the 25 million mark, boosted by 263,533 new infections over the last 24 hours, while deaths from COVID-19 rose by a record 4,329.
India becomes the world’s second nation after the United States to pass the grim milestone. The country’s total case load is now at 25.23 million, while the death toll is at 278,719, according to health ministry data on Tuesday.
The official count of daily cases began to decline last week, with new infections on Monday put at 281,386 – the first time cases dropped below 300,000 since April 21.
Even with a downturn in infections over the past few days, experts said there was no certainty that infections had peaked, with alarm growing at home and abroad over the new more contagious B.1.617 variant taking hold.
“There are still many parts of the country which have not yet experienced the peak, they are still going up,” World Health Organization’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan was quoted as saying in The Hindu newspaper.
Swaminathan pointed to the worryingly high national positivity rate, at about 20 percent of tests conducted, as a sign that there could be worse to come.
“Testing is still inadequate in a large number of states. And when you see high test positivity rates, clearly we are not testing enough. And so the absolute numbers actually don’t mean anything when they are taken just by themselves; they have to be taken in the context of how much testing is done, and test positivity rate.”
Hospitals have had to turn patients away while mortuaries and crematoriums have been unable to cope with bodies piling up.
Photographs and television images of funeral pyres burning in parking lots and corpses washing up on the banks of the Ganges river have heightened impatience with the government’s handling of the crisis.
It is widely accepted that the official figures grossly underestimate the real effect of the epidemic, with some experts saying actual infections and deaths could be five to 10 times higher.
While the first wave of the pandemic in India, which peaked in September, was largely concentrated in urban areas, where testing was introduced faster, the second wave that erupted in February is rampaging through rural towns and villages, where about two-thirds of the country’s 1.35 billion people live, and testing in those places is sorely lacking.
“This drop in confirmed COVID cases in India is an illusion,” S Vincent Rajkumar, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in the US, said on Twitter.
“First, due to limited testing, the total number of cases is a huge underestimate. Second, confirmed cases can only occur where you can confirm: the urban areas. Rural areas are not getting counted.”
While lockdowns have helped limit cases in parts of the country that had been hit by an initial surge of infections in February and April, such as Maharashtra and Delhi, rural areas and some states are dealing with fresh surges.
Al Jazeera’s Pavni Mittal, reporting from New Delhi, said a court in the northern Uttar Pradesh state – India’s most populous – has “echoed sentiments” regarding an undercount of coronavirus cases and made some “scathing observations” on medical infrastructure in its rural parts where there is “barely one bed for every 10,000 people”.
The court directed the state government to ramp up testing in rural areas, Mittal said.
The federal government issued detailed guidelines on Sunday for monitoring COVID-19 cases with the health ministry asking villages to look out for people with flu-like illness and get them tested for COVID-19.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire for his messaging to the public, a decision to leave key decisions on lockdowns to states, and the slow rollout of an immunisation campaign in the world’s biggest vaccine producer.
India has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million people, or 2.9 percent of its population.
A top virologist resigned on Sunday from a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government to detect variants of the coronavirus.
Shahid Jameel, the chair of the scientific advisory group of the forum known as INSACOG, declined to say why he had resigned but said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence as they set policy.