India posted a global record of almost 315,000 new COVID infections on Thursday as hospitals in New Delhi sent out desperate warnings that patients could die without fresh oxygen supplies.
India’s long-underfunded health system is being stretched to the limit by a devastating second wave blamed on a “double mutant” variant and “super-spreader” mass gatherings.
Health ministry data on Thursday showed 314,835 new infections in the past 24 hours, the most of any country since the pandemic began, taking total cases to 15.9 million, the world’s second highest.
There were 2,074 fatalities, bringing the total death toll to almost 185,000.
The number of deaths and cases in India are however considerably lower on a per capita basis than many other countries.
Major private and government-run hospitals in New Delhi have sent out urgent appeals to the central government, calling for immediate supply of oxygen for hundreds of patients on ventilator support.
On Wednesday, nearly 500 tonnes of oxygen was supplied to Delhi but this fell short of the required 700 tonnes per day.
The megacity’s government, run by a different party to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national administration, has accused neighbouring states governed by Modi’s BJP of holding up supplies.
Late Wednesday the Delhi High Court ordered the government to ensure safe passage of oxygen supplies from factories to hospitals across India.
“We cannot let people die due to lack of oxygen… you beg, borrow and steal but have to provide,” the judges said, asking why the government is “not waking up to the gravity of the situation”.
Highlighting the strain on health authorities, 22 patients died in a hospital in western India after an oxygen leak cut off the supply to 60 ventilators for half an hour on Wednesday.
Recent months have seen mass gatherings, including millions attending the Kumbh Mela religious festival, as well as political rallies, lavish weddings and cricket matches against England.
Production of key coronavirus drugs slowed or even halted at some factories and there were delays inviting bids for oxygen generation plants, according to press reports.
Distraught relatives are now being forced to pay exorbitant rates on the black market for medicines and oxygen and WhatsApp groups are white-hot with desperate pleas for help.
States across India have imposed restrictions, with Delhi in a week-long lockdown, all non-essential shops shut in Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh set for a weekend shutdown.
The United States now advises against travelling to India, even for those fully vaccinated, while Britain has added India to its “red list”. Hong Kong and New Zealand have banned flights.
India’s inoculation programme has also hit supply hurdles, prompting New Delhi to put the brakes on exports of the AstraZeneca shot, which is manufactured locally by the Serum Institute.
India has administered more than 130 million shots so far and from May 1 all adults will be eligible for a jab.