The US has taken the unprecedented step of loosening its vaccine export ban as India’s coronavirus plight grows ever more desperate.
More than a third of a million new cases were reported in the past day as Prime Minister Navendra Modi declared “this storm has shaken the nation”.
Britain also announced overnight it was sending urgent medical supplies as the Indian COVID crisis worsened, killing one person every four minutes and forcing hospitals who have run out of oxygen to turn away patients.
The total of new infections was a record for a single country since the global pandemic erupted 16 months ago.
Mr Modi urged all citizens to be vaccinated and exercise caution.
“We were confident, our spirits were up after successfully tackling the first wave, but this storm has shaken the nation,” Mr Modi said in a radio address late on Sunday Indian time.
His government has faced criticism that it let its guard down earlier this year, allowing big religious and political gatherings as India’s cases fell to below 10,000 a day. But the nation did nothing to boost its healthcare systems.
India’s virus infections surged by 349,691 in 24 hours to Sunday, the fourth straight day of record peaks.
People were arranging stretchers and oxygen cylinders outside hospitals as they desperately pleaded for authorities to take patients, Reuters photographers said.
Infection rate double last year’s rate
Epidemiologists and virologists say more infectious variants of the virus, including an Indian one known as B.126.96.36.199, have fuelled the ferocious surge.
Doctors at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences have found that one patient is infecting up to nine in 10 contacts, compared with up to four in 2020.
The surge in India is expected to peak in mid-May with the daily count of infections reaching half a million, the Indian Express said, citing an internal government assessment.
Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has extended a lockdown in the capital that was due to end on Monday for a week to try to stem the transmission of the virus, which is killing one person every four minutes.
Oxygen generation plants
The Indian government has approved plans for more than 500 oxygen generation plants across the country to boost supplies.
Many hospitals across the country are refusing new admissions because of uncertainty over oxygen supply, and oxygen-equipped ambulances are in short supply.
Oxygen tankers are being given police escorts as they transport the gas. Social media feeds and WhatsApp groups are full of pleas for oxygen cylinders, reports the BBC.
Normally, healthcare facilities consume about 15 per cent of India’s oxygen supply, with the rest for industrial use. But now nearly 90 per cent of the country’s oxygen supply – 7500 metric tonnes daily – is being diverted for medical use, according to Rajesh Bhushan, a senior health official.
US joins global aid effort
The US has announced it will immediately provide raw materials for COVID vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear to help India.
“The United States is working around the clock to deploy available resources and supplies,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said.
Ms Horne said the materials would help India manufacture the Covishield vaccine.
“The US Development Finance Corporation is funding a substantial expansion of manufacturing capability for BioE, the vaccine manufacturer in India, enabling BioE to ramp up to produce at least 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022,” the US government said.
It will also send therapeutics, rapid diagnostic test kits and ventilators to India.
The US has faced criticism in India for its export controls on raw materials for vaccines put in place via the Defence Production Act and an associated export embargo in February.
Britain sends vital equipment
Britain is sending more than 600 medical devices, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators.
The equipment comes from Britain’s surplus stock, with the first shipment due to arrive in Delhi on Tuesday, the British foreign ministry said.
The European Union also pledged to help India on Sunday, activating its EU Civil Protection Mechanism as it seeks to send oxygen and medicine after a request from Delhi.
Help from a traditional enemy
Even Pakistan, a traditional foe, offered medical equipment and supplies after Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted prayers for a “speedy recovery”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief support including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, PPE and related items.
“Humanitarian issues require responses beyond political consideration,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said.
The Indian government did not immediately respond.
Crematoriums and burial grounds unable to keep up
The 349,691 confirmed cases in the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million, behind only the US.
The Health Ministry reported another 2767 deaths in the 24-hour period, pushing India’s COVID-19 fatalities to 192,311.
Experts say that toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many deaths from the infection have been attributed to underlying conditions.
The crisis unfolding in India is most visceral in its graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.
Burial grounds in Delhi are running out of space and bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.
In central Bhopal city, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50.
At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the city of 1.8 million put total virus deaths at just 10.
Burning bodies as they arrive
“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,” Mr Sharma said.
“It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”
The head gravedigger at Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1000 people have been buried during the pandemic, said more bodies were arriving now than in 2020.
“I fear we will run out of space very soon,” Mohammad Shameem said.