India has registered a record-breaking single day rise in Covid cases as a severe shortages of beds and oxygen hit Delhi hospitals and migrant workers made an exodus from the capital.
Its total of 314,835 new coronavirus cases over the previous 24 hours is the highest number of infections recorded in a single day in any country since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.
The unprecedented spread of the virus, blamed on a more contagious strain as well as lax safety measures, has pushed hospitals to the brink. Social media is flooded with desperate pleas from people whose relatives are sick but have been repeatedly turned away from wards.
“We as the doctor, we the hospital, we are supposed to give life,” said Sunil Saggar, chief executive of Shanti Mukand hospital in Delhi, breaking down as he spoke to local media. “If we cannot give them oxygen even, what is the situation? The patient will die.”
Outside his hospital a sign read: “We regret we are stopping admission in hospital because oxygen supply are not coming.”
Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia accused neighbouring states of blocking oxygen supplies from reaching Delhi, warning in a televised address: “It might become difficult for hospitals here to save lives.”
In Maharashtra state in western India, at least 24 Covid-19 patients died on Wednesday when the oxygen supply to their ventilators ran out due to a leak. The state, which accounted for the majority of new cases announced on Thursday, tightened its lockdown late on Wednesday night, stating that travel by private vehicles would be permitted only for medical emergencies, and that only health workers and government employees may use the train system.
“Covid-19 has become a public health crisis in India leading to a collapse of the healthcare system,” Krutika Kuppalli, an assistant professor at the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina in the US, said on Twitter.
A total of 2,104 deaths were registered on Wednesday, a record high for India, which has overwhelmed crematoriums. One crematorium east of Delhi was forced to build funeral pyres in its parking lot to cope with demand.
Delhi’s migrant workers, who fear a prolonged lockdown in which they are left stranded with no income, are leaving en masse, despite reassurances by the city’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, earlier in the week, who pleaded for them to stay.
“We did not want to get caught in the lockdown of Delhi like last time. If we were afraid of corona and stayed in Delhi, then I believe our family would have died of debt and hunger,” said Pooja Kumari, 30, who was travelling with her family back to her home village in Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
Unlike last year when trains and buses were suspended, forcing millions of people to walk for days to reach their home villages, transport is still running. Campaigners say bus services are struggling to cope with the exodus, however, and ticket prices have rocketed. On Tuesday, an overcrowded bus that was carrying migrant workers from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh overturned in Gwalior, killing three people and injuring 12.
“Anyone who goes to these major bus terminals or railway stations will have a picture of the degree of strandedness that there is,” said Shreya Ghosh of the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN).
Migrant workers feared losing their livelihoods, and being unable to cover the cost of rent and food in big cities, added Richa Prasant, founder of the Sunaayy Foundation, which supports migrant workers. “They also feel if there is an issue in the healthcare system then priority won’t be on them. At least [in their home areas] they have a support system.”
Prior to Thursday, the record for the highest number of daily cases registered anywhere in the world was 300,310, set by the US on 2 January. India’s latest tally of 314,835 cases has surpassed this. Since the start of the pandemic, India has recorded 15.93m cases, including more than 1m in the past four days.
“We never thought a second wave would hit us so hard,” Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the executive chairman of Biocon & Biocon Biologics, an Indian healthcare firm, wrote in the Economic Times. “Complacency led to unanticipated shortages of medicines, medical supplies and hospital beds.”
Health experts say the country relaxed safety measures too quickly, wrongly assuming the virus had disappeared. Weddings and huge festivals were allowed to go ahead, while Modi addressed packed political rallies for local elections.
India has so far administered nearly 130 million doses of vaccine, the most in the world after the US and China. Yet, with a population of 1.38 billion, this still means only 8% of people received at least one vaccine.
The government had planned to offer vaccines, which are currently offered to frontline workers and people aged over 45, to all adults from next month. However, supplies are running low in many states, and the Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, has downgraded its production forecasts. It had planned to raise its monthly output to 100m doses from the current 60m-70m late in May, but now expects this will not be possible until July.