Indian families are being left to ferry people sick with Covid-19 from hospital to hospital in search of treatment, as the country suffers a surge in infections with oxygen in short supply.
On social media and in television footage, desperate relatives can be seen pleading for oxygen outside hospitals or weeping in the street for loved ones who have died while waiting for treatment.
One woman mourned the death of her younger brother, aged 50. He was turned away by two hospitals and died waiting to be seen at a third, gasping after his oxygen tank ran out. She blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for the crisis.
“He has lit funeral pyres in every house,” she said, in a video shot by The Caravan magazine.
On Sunday, For the fourth straight day, India set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by a new variant.
The surge has undermined the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.
The 349,691 new infections brought India’s total to more than 16.9m, behind only the United States. The health ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.
The death toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many Covid-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.
Graveyards and crematoriums
The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to a lack of oxygen.
Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space, and bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly-hit cities.
In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet there are still hours-long waits.
At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8m put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.
“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site.
The unprecedented rush of bodies has forced the crematorium to skip individual ceremonies and exhaustive rituals that Hindus believe release the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
“We are just burning bodies as they arrive,” said Sharma. “It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”
The situation is equally grim at packed hospitals, where desperate people are dying in queues, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.
Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that is being sold on the black market at an exponential mark-up.
President Joe Biden said the US is determined to help India, tweeting: “Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need.”
The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen”, in a statement made on Saturday by India’s solicitor general Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.
The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister had declared victory over Covid-19 in January, and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy”, a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.
Caught off-guard by the latest deadly spike, the federal government has asked industrialists to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs in short supply. Health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable — and it failed.
Modi is facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies which experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections.
At one such rally on 17 April, Modi expressed his delight at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly surge was inevitable with India already counting 250,000 new daily cases.
Now, with the death toll mounting, his Hindu nationalist government is trying to quell critical voices.
Earlier today, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the devastating surge in India is “beyond heartbreaking.”
His comments at a press briefing in Geneva came as Maria van Kerkhove, of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, described coronavirus rates globally as being in a “fragile situation” as several nations, including the UK, said they were sending help to India.
“This can happen in any country if we let our guard down. I am not saying that India has let its guard down but I am saying that we are in a fragile situation,” she said.
“Nine weeks of case incidence increasing and almost 5.7m cases reported last week, that is almost certainly an underestimate of the true number of cases of infections that have occurred.”
“The situation is fragile. The situation can grow if we allow it to and that is why it is important that every single person on the planet knows they have a role to play,” according to Van Kerkhove.
“We need governments to be able to support them in taking the actions that will inform them about what they need to do and keep them safe.”
The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has said the first of nine plane-loads of life-saving kit – including ventilators and oxygen concentrators – would arrive in New Delhi early on Tuesday.
Further consignments were due to be dispatched later this week, while part of the shipment of emergency medical supplies comprised 100 non-invasive breathing aids from University College London which could help to prevent a significant proportion of people from needing mechanical ventilation.