NEW DELHI: India recorded a global record of almost 315,000 new COVID infections on Thursday, while hospitals in New Delhi sent desperate warnings that patients could die without fresh oxygen supplies.
India’s long-underfunded health system is being pushed to the limit by a devastating second wave attributed to a “mutant double” variant and “super-spreading” mass meetings.
Data from the Ministry of Health on Thursday showed 314,835 new infections in the past 24 hours, the highest number in any country since the start of the pandemic, bringing the total number of cases to 15.9 million, the second highest in the world. There were 2,074 deaths, bringing the total death toll to almost 185,000. The number of deaths and cases in India, however, is considerably less on a per capita basis than in many other countries.
The main private and government-run hospitals in New Delhi have sent urgent appeals to the central government, calling for the immediate supply of oxygen to hundreds of patients with ventilatory support. On Wednesday, nearly 500 tonnes of oxygen were supplied to Delhi, but it fell short of the 700 tonnes required per day.
The megacity government, led by a party other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national administration, accused neighboring states ruled by Modi’s BJP of delaying supplies.
Late Wednesday, the Delhi Supreme Court ordered the government to ensure the safe passage of oxygen supplies from factories to hospitals across India. “We cannot let people die from lack of oxygen … you beg, borrow and steal, but you have to provide”, said the judges, asking why the government “is not waking up to the seriousness of the situation”.
Highlighting the pressure on health officials, 22 patients died in a hospital in western India after an oxygen leak interrupted the supply of 60 ventilators for half an hour on Wednesday. In the past few months, we have seen mass meetings, including millions of people at the Kumbh Mela religious festival, as well as political rallies, sumptuous weddings and cricket matches against England.
Production of major coronavirus drugs has slowed or even stopped in some factories and there have been delays in bidding for oxygen generation plants, according to press reports. Distraught relatives are now being forced to pay exorbitant black-market fees for drugs and oxygen, and WhatsApp groups are seething with desperate pleas for help.
States across India have imposed restrictions, with Delhi on a weeklong block, all non-essential stores closed in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh set for a weekend closure. The United States now advises against traveling to India, even for those who are fully vaccinated, while Britain has added India to its “red list”. Hong Kong and New Zealand have banned flights.
India’s vaccination program has also hit supply barriers, which has led New Delhi to curb exports of the AstraZeneca injection, which is manufactured locally by the Serum Institute. India has administered more than 130 million injections so far, and as of May 1, all adults will be able to receive an injection.