India has reported more than 400,000 coronavirus infections over the last 24 hours, while the number of dead from the virus rose to a record 3,980.
The South Asian nation’s tally has surged past 21 million cases, boosted by a record 412,262 new infections. The number of people who have died due to COVID-19 now totals 230,168, health ministry data showed on Thursday.
Many experts suspect that with low levels of testing and poor record-keeping for cause of death – and crematoriums overwhelmed in many places – the real numbers could be significantly higher.
A massive wave of infections since April has pushed India’s healthcare system to the brink, with people begging for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds on social media and news channels.
Bodies have been piling up at cremation grounds and in graveyards, with relatives waiting for hours to carry out the last rites.
Authorities are scrambling to add more beds, sending oxygen from one corner of the country to another and scaling up the manufacturing of the few drugs effective against COVID-19.
Present oxygen plan: Court to gov’t
On Wednesday, the Indian government, facing calls for a strict lockdown to slow the surge in infections, was ordered by the Supreme Court to submit a plan to supply New Delhi’s hospitals with oxygen within a day.
The court decided against immediately punishing officials for failing to end an erratic supply of oxygen to overstretched hospitals during the past two weeks.
“Ultimately putting officers in jail or hauling officers for contempt will not bring oxygen. Please tell us steps to solve this,” Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud said.
The court delayed a contempt notice earlier issued to the government by the New Delhi High Court for defying its order to supply adequate oxygen to more than 40 New Delhi hospitals. The government officials found guilty could have faced six months in prison and a fine.
On Tuesday, the New Delhi High Court, which had summoned two home ministry officials for a hearing on Wednesday, said that those hospitals had instead reduced the number of beds available and had asked the patients to move out. The court is hearing petitions filed by several hospitals and nursing homes struggling with oxygen unreliable supplies.
“You can put your head in the sand like an ostrich, we will not. We are not going to take no for an answer,” Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said on Tuesday.
Raghav Chaddha, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi Party which governs New Delhi, said hospitals were getting only 40 percent of their 700 metric tonne daily needs through the federal government. The local government was arranging additional supplies and setting up new oxygen plants to help with the shortage, he said.
Dileep Kumar, a student, said he was asked by hospital authorities to move his father to another hospital in Ghaziabad, a town on the outskirts of New Delhi, after the first hospital ran out of oxygen.
‘Lockdown the only option’
Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said this week “a lockdown is now the only option because of a complete lack of strategy by the Indian government”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is reluctant to impose a national lockdown for fear of damaging the economy. Modi said last month that he would only do it as a last resort.
But nearly a dozen states have imposed their own curbs.
The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, implemented a five-day lockdown this week. The country’s second- and third-most populated states of Maharashtra and Bihar respectively are also under lockdown with curbs that vary in severity.
Efforts to scale up a vaccination drive are hampered by the shortage of doses. India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, has so far administered 160 million doses.
The global community is extending a helping hand. The United States, Britain, Germany and several other nations are rushing therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen to India, along with materials needed to boost domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.