Calls grow for India lockdown amid worsening COVID crisis

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi calls for nationwide lockdown as coronavirus infections surpass 20 million.

Men wearing protective suits stand next to the body of their relative, who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), before her cremation at a crematorium ground in New Delhi [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

India’s government is facing growing pressure to impose a nationwide lockdown to stem the devastating coronavirus surge that has overwhelmed hospitals and morgues.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, widely criticised for allowing religious festivals and political gatherings attended by hundreds of thousands of largely unmasked people, is reluctant to impose a national lockdown for fear of the economic fallout.

With 3.45 million active cases on Tuesday, India recorded 357,229 new infections over the previous 24 hours, while deaths rose by 3,449 to 222,408, health ministry data showed.

The cumulative case count in the world’s second-most populous country has passed 20 million, adding 10 million cases in just over four months, after taking more than 10 months to reach the first 10 million.

Healthcare workers and relatives carry a woman from an ambulance for treatment at a COVID-19 care facility in Mumbai, India [Niharika Kulkarni/Reuters]

With hospitals running out of beds and oxygen, and morgues and crematoria overflowing, experts say the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

The leader of the main opposition party on Tuesday urged the government to impose a full national lockdown.

“The only way to stop the spread of corona now is a full lockdown … GOI’s inaction is killing many innocent people,” opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter, referring to the government.

Several states have already imposed social curbs in an attempt to contain the virus. The eastern state of Bihar ordered a lockdown until May 15, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said. With more than 100,000 infections, its death toll is nearing 3,000, government figures show.

Cricket league suspended

India on Tuesday halted its hugely popular Indian Premier League (IPL) as the outbreak continued to spiral.

“While we have tried to bring in some positivity and cheer, it is imperative that the tournament is now suspended and everyone goes back to their families and loved ones in these trying times,” the IPL said.

The IPL tournament, with an estimated brand value of $6.8bn, was being played without spectators to a huge television audience in the cricket-obsessed nation but has been severely criticised for continuing while the healthcare system was falling apart.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates extended a ban on entry from travellers coming from India, the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi said in a statement on its website.

Hospitals, crematoria overwhelmed

India’s coronavirus surge, which some experts have attributed to the spread of new, more infectious variants of the virus, has swamped hospitals and depleted supplies of oxygen, while sufferers have died in ambulances and car parks.

Rows of funeral pyres set up in parks and other open spaces are being used to cremate the overflow of corpses.

A two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court has been holding almost daily video conferences to hear petitions from hospitals seeking oxygen and invoking India’s constitutional right to protection of life.

Some hope surfaced in comments on Monday by a health ministry official who said infections in some regions were levelling out. Government modelling points to a peak by Wednesday, a few days earlier than thought, since the virus has spread faster than expected.

But Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health in the United States, said he was concerned that Indian policymakers he has been in contact with believe things will improve in the next few days.

“I’ve been … trying to say to them, ‘If everything goes very well, things will be horrible for the next several weeks. And it may be much longer,’” he said.

Vaccinations plummet

The surge in infections and deaths has coincided with a dramatic drop in vaccination rates amid supply and delivery problems. At least three states, including Maharashtra, home to the commercial capital of Mumbai, reported a scarcity of vaccines and shut down some inoculation centres.

On Monday the state administered 79,491 doses, after a record 534,372 a week ago.

In Modi’s adjoining home state of Gujarat, the three largest cities of Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara limited vaccines to those aged between 18 and 44, officials said.

The eastern state of Odisha also halted vaccinations in 11 of its 30 districts, health officials told Reuters news agency.

Forecasts by India’s two current vaccine producers show it will take two months or more to boost total monthly output from the current 70 million to 80 million doses.

Meanwhile, Britain announced one billion pounds ($1.4bn) of new trade and investment with India, including a deal with the Serum Institute of India to aid in the development of vaccines against COVID-19 and other diseases.

India, with the world’s biggest vaccine making capacity, has partially or fully immunised about 9.5 percent of its 1.35 billion people, according to the government’s Co-WIN portal.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies