The European Union and the United States have pledged to help India as the country battles a devastating outbreak of infections.
For the fourth day in a row, India set a daily world record for new coronavirus infections on Sunday, spurred by an insidious new variant that has emerged here. This push has undermined premature claims of the government’s victory over the pandemic.
The 349,691 new infections brought India’s total to over 16.9 million, behind only the United States. The Ministry of Health reported 2,767 more deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll in India to 192,311.
The death toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included and many deaths from COVID-19 are attributed to underlying conditions.
The crisis is made worse by the lack of oxygen, with families left on their own to transport people with COVID-19 from hospital to hospital in search of treatment.
On social media and in television footage, desperate relatives advocate for oxygen outside hospitals or cry on the streets for loved ones who have died while awaiting treatment.
A woman mourned the death of her younger brother, aged 50. He was turned away from two hospitals and died while waiting to be seen at a third, panting after his oxygen cylinder ran out and no replacement needed to be made.
“We are ready to support”
In response to the spiraling situation in the Southeast Asian country, the European Union has activated its Civil Protection Mechanism, which is coordinating with member states to quickly ship oxygen and medicine.
The head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was “alarmed by the epidemiological situation in India. We are ready to provide our support”.
“The EU is pooling its resources to respond quickly to India’s request for assistance,” she added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel also said that Germany “stands in solidarity with India and is urgently preparing a support mission”.
“To the Indian people, I would like to express my sympathy for the terrible suffering that COVID-19 has again brought to your communities. The fight against the pandemic is our common fight,” she said in a statement.
President Joe Biden has said the United States is determined to help. “Just as India sent aid to the United States when our hospitals were under stress at the start of the pandemic, we are determined to help India when needed,” Biden said in a tweet.
The White House said the United States is “working around the clock” to deploy test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment, and will also seek to provide oxygen supplies. He said he would also make available sources of raw materials urgently needed to make Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India.
“ The virus swallows our people ”
The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed cemeteries and crematoriums, and in the heartbreaking images of panting patients dying on their way to hospitals from lack of oxygen.
The cemeteries of the capital New Delhi lack space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night skies of other hard-hit towns.
In the central town of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to over 50. Yet there are still hours of waiting.
At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as city-wide government figures of 1.8 million put the total number of deaths from the virus at just 10.
“The virus is swallowing the people of our city 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 frees the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
“We just burn the bodies when they arrive,” Sharma said. “It’s like we’re in the middle of a war.”
The chief gravedigger at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people were buried during the pandemic, said more bodies were arriving now than last year. “I’m afraid we will run out of space very soon,” Mohammad Shameem said.
‘A matter of time’
The situation is just as grim in unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people die in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.
Health officials are scrambling to expand intensive care units and stock up on dwindling oxygen supplies. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to source scarce medical equipment which is sold on the black market at an exponential markup.
The drama contrasts directly with the government’s claims that “no one in the country has been deprived of oxygen,” in a statement made by Indian Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to the Delhi High Court on Saturday.
The blackout is a brutal failure for a country whose prime minister only in January declared victory over COVID-19, and which boasted of being the “pharmacy of the world”, a global vaccine producer and a model for d ‘other developing countries.
Caught off guard by the latest deadly peak, the federal government has called on industry to increase production of oxygen and other vital drugs in short supply. But health experts say India has had a whole year to prepare for the inevitable – and it hasn’t.
Dr Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Medicine of South Carolina, said the government should have used last year, when the virus was out of control, to store drugs and develop systems to deal with the likelihood of another surge.
“More importantly, they should have looked at what was going on in other parts of the world and understood that it was only a matter of time before they found themselves in a similar situation,” said Kuppalli.
Instead, the government’s premature declarations of victory encouraged people to relax when they should have continued to strictly observe physical distance, wear masks and avoid large crowds.
Modi tries to quell criticism
Modi is increasingly criticized for allowing Hindu festivals and participating in gigantic election rallies which experts say have accelerated the spread of infections. At one of those rallies on April 17, Modi expressed his joy at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly wave was inevitable, with India already having 250,000 new cases daily.
Now, with the death toll rising, his Hindu nationalist government is trying to stifle critical voices.
On Saturday, Twitter complied with the government’s request and barred residents of India from viewing more than 50 tweets that appeared to criticize the administration’s handling of the pandemic. Targeted posts include tweets from opposition ministers criticizing Modi, journalists and ordinary Indians.
A Twitter spokesperson said it had the power to “deny access to content in India only” if the company found the content “illegal in a particular jurisdiction.” The company said it responded to a government order and notified people whose tweets were not disclosed.
India’s Ministry of Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment.
Even with the blocks targeted, gruesome scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and cremation grounds spread on Twitter and drew cries for help.