By Robin Gomes
India’s death toll from Covid-19 crossed the grim landmark of 200,000 cases on Wednesday, the deadliest so far, as the country continues to struggle against acute shortages in oxygen, medical supplies, vaccines, beds and hospital personnel.
In the last 24 hours, India registered 360,960 new cases, the world's single-day highest, taking the total to nearly 18 million. With 3,293 new deaths, the total number of fatalities rose to 201,187.
Healthcare system buckling
The devastating second wave of infections has seen record surges of at least 300,000 new infections each day for the past week, with the country’s poorly-funded healthcare system buckling under the weight. Crematoriums are running out of space, with funerals held in parking lots, and parks converted into makeshift cremation grounds.
Analysts and news media say official government figures on the pandemic are vastly underestimated in a nation of over 1.3 billion, where numerous cases and deaths in homes, private hospitals, villages and rural areas go unreported.
Ambulances lined up for hours in the capital, New Delhi, to take the bodies of Covid-19 victims to makeshift crematorium facilities in parks and parking lots. Oxygen remains scarce in hospitals in and around the capital, despite government promises to improve supplies. Many struggling for breath flocked to a Sikh temple on the city's outskirts, hoping to secure some of its limited supplies of oxygen.
In its weekly bulletin, the United Nations World Health Organization said that India accounted for 38% of the 5.7 million cases reported worldwide to it last week. It said a variant of the coronavirus feared to be contributing to a surge in cases in the country has been found in at least 17 other nations as well.
International community to the rescue
To help tackle the crisis, the Indian government has called in its armed forces, as countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States pledged to send urgent medical aid.
Supplies arriving in New Delhi on Wednesday included ventilators and oxygen concentrators from Britain, with more sent from Australia, Germany and Ireland. Singapore and Russia pledged oxygen cylinders and medical supplies.
Taiwan is shipping it first consignment of oxygen generators this week, and Canada has committed $10 million, saying it is ready to donate extra medical supplies.
Several tech and industrial giants in India and abroad are scrambling to help source medical oxygen, medicine and hospital beds for the country’s healthcare system. Amazon, Intel and Google, as well as Indian firms Tata Sons, Reliance Industries and JSW Steel have offered everything from airlifts of medical equipment and funding pledges to making medical oxygen.
Amazon said on Tuesday it was sending in 100 ICU ventilators from the US. Google promised $18 million in funding, including advertising support for public health campaigns. India's largest steel maker by market value, JSW, has stopped making some of the construction raw material, diverting resources to producing liquid medical oxygen instead for India's 20 worst-hit states.
Tata Group, one of India's oldest conglomerates, imported 24 cryogenic containers to transport liquid oxygen, while its Tata Steel unit ramped up oxygen supply. Reliance Industries has modified manufacturing at some of its oil refineries to produce oxygen for hard-hit areas such as Maharashtra, India's richest and worst-hit state.
Banks including Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered, which run much of their global back-office operations from large office parks in Bengaluru, Chennai or Hyderabad, have put in place the infrastructure to vaccinate thousands of employees and their families, when age restrictions are lifted on May 1.
Vaccination the way out
Before the arrival of vaccines, lockdowns have been regarded as the way to check the spread of the virus but have been very unpopular with businesses and daily wage-earners. The Indian capital that had imposed a lockdown on April 19 has now extended it to next week. The government of Maharashtra state, home to financial capital, Mumbai, said the restrictions that were to end on April 30, have been extended to mid-May.
The national vaccination campaign against Covid-19, which experts see as the only sure way out of the pandemic, began in India in January, averaging about 2.8 million doses a day since an April 5 peak of 4.5 million, according to government data. More than 121 million people, or about 9% of the population, have received at least one dose.