A major cyclone packing ferocious winds and threatening a destructive storm surge bore down on India on Monday, disrupting the country’s urgent response to its devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
At least six people died over the weekend in torrential rains and winds as Tauktae, according to press reports the biggest to hit western India in 30 years, swept over the Arabian Sea with Gujarat state in its sights.
The “Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm” was due to make landfall on Monday between 8-11 pm (1430-1730 GMT) with winds of 155-165 kilometers per hour (95-100 miles per hour) gusting up to 185 kmph, the Indian Meteorological Department said.
It warned of storm surges of up to three meters high (10 feet) in some of Gujarat’s coastal districts.
The vast swirling system visible from space threatens to exacerbate India’s dire problems dealing with a huge surge in coronavirus cases that is killing at least 4,000 people every day and pushing hospitals to breaking point.
In waterlogged Mumbai, where authorities on Monday closed the airport for several hours and urged people to stay indoors, authorities on Sunday shifted 580 COVID patients “to safer locations” from three field hospitals.
In Gujarat, where on Sunday and overnight more than 100,000 people from 17 districts were evacuated, all COVID-19 patients in hospitals with five kilometres of the coast were also moved.
Authorities there were scrambling to ensure there would be no power cuts in the nearly 400 designated hospitals and 41 oxygen plants in 12 coastal districts where the cyclone was expected to hit hardest.
“To ensure that COVID hospitals are not faced with power outages, 1,383 power back-ups have been installed,” senior local official Pankaj Kumar said.
“Thirty-five ‘green corridors’ have also been made for supply of oxygen to COVID hospitals,” he said.
Virus safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing, and the use of sanitizers would be observed in the shelters for evacuees, officials added.
The state, which officially has seen 9,000 virus deaths — likely a gross underestimate, as elsewhere, experts say — also suspended vaccinations for two days. Mumbai did the same for one day.
Thousands of disaster response personnel had been deployed, while units from the coast guard, navy, army, and air force had been placed on standby, Home Minister Amit Shah said in a statement.
Four people died on Saturday as rain and winds battered Karnataka state with several towns and villages flooded, authorities said.
Two people died in the resort state of Goa — which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic in recent weeks — hitting power supplies and uprooting trees.
Two others were reported dead and 23 fishermen were feared missing in Kerala, local media said.
The vast nation of 1.3 billion people reported on Monday 4,100 deaths and 280,000 fresh COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total close to 25 million — a doubling since April 1.
Last May, more than 110 people died after “super cyclone” Amphan ravaged eastern India and Bangladesh, flattening villages, destroying farms and leaving millions without electricity.