Hospitals in parts of India are taking to social media to beg for help finding oxygen and key equipment as the country’s second Covid-19 wave continues to build, breaking global records for the most infections detected in a single day.
Only two months ago, some in the vast country of more than 1.3bn people were celebrating what they thought was the end of Covid-19 after six successive months of falling caseloads. Most of the remaining restrictions on social life were removed and people again flocked to markets, cricket stadiums and religious festivals.
Few heeded the advice of some public-health specialists that Covid-19 cases were still being detected, including some variants that had been shown to be highly infectious in other countries, and that it was too early to declare victory.
In the middle of March, recorded cases started to grow faster than has been seen in any other country, this week crossing 300,000 per day, along with with more than 2,000 deaths, approaching close to twice the peak of daily deaths India experienced during the first peak of the virus between July and September 2020.
Oxygen, and the lack of it, has been the focus of significant alarm this week, as the size of the second wave strains supplies even in India’s major cities. Along with hospital, government administrators and ordinary citizens are using Twitter and WhatsApp for help finding canisters of the crucial gas alongside beds in intensive-care units and drugs such as remdesivir or ivermectin. Neither is proven to help with the virus, but people are desperate.
Adding to the sense of crisis, a leak in oxygen supplies at a hospital in India’s worst-hit state, Maharashtra, led to the deaths of at least 24 Covid-19 patients.
The real death toll from the virus is thought to be significantly higher than official figures, amid reports of some state governments fudging data and crematoria equipment in some states melting due to the constant heat of fires burning day and night with the bodies of the dead.
Some of India’s most prominent politicians have become sick including the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, and the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who is in hospital with the virus despite having been vaccinated.
It is not clear why virus numbers fell so sharply last year and why they have climbed so quickly now. Experts speculate that highly infectious variants may be playing a role but say their impact was strongly exacerbated by the resumption of normal life in much of the country.
Indian leaders are reluctant to declare a nation-wide lockdown of the kind imposed last April, which led hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to return home to their village and home cities. The exodus severely damaged the Indian economy, pushing millions back into a poverty that, for some, could have been deadlier than the virus itself. But there are reports from cities such as Delhi that migrants are already starting to leave again, fearing they will be trapped.
India produces more than 80m vaccines per month, and has been administering about 3m per day over the past few weeks. That is one of the fastest vaccination rates in the world, but has barely made a dent in a country with an estimated adult population of around 900m people.
The crisis will also have knock-on effects for efforts to vaccinate other developing countries, many of which are relying on Indian manufacturers to supply them with vaccines through the UN-backed mechanism Covax. India has sharply reduced the amount of vaccines it is permitting to be exported as it seeks to calm its own population and get as many people vaccinated as possible.
But it will take months at least of consistent vaccination to reach a critical mass of the population. In the short-term, the country can only rely on quarantines and social distancing, a strategy that many who rely on daily wages to survive cannot afford.