NEW DELHI, April 27 (Reuters) – Vital medical supplies began to reach India on Tuesday as hospitals starved of life-saving oxygen and beds turned away coronavirus patients, and a surge in infections pushed the death toll towards 200,000.
A shipment from Britain, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators, arrived in the capital, New Delhi, though a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had no surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to spare.
France is this week sending eight large oxygen generating plants and Ireland, Germany and Australia are sending oxygen concentrators and ventilators, an Indian foreign ministry official said, underlining the crucial need of oxygen.
India’s first “Oxygen Express” train pulled into New Delhi, laden with about 70 tonnes of oxygen from an eastern state, but the crisis has not abated in the city of 20 million at the epicentre of the latest wave of infections.
“The current wave is extremely dangerous and contagious and the hospitals are overloaded,” said Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, adding that a large public area in the capital will be converted into a critical care hospital.
With frustration mounting, relatives of a recently deceased COVID-19 patient attacked staff with knives at a hospital in the southeast of New Delhi, injuring at least one person, a hospital spokeswoman said.
A video posted on social media showed several people brawling with guards at the same hospital. Delhi High Court has advised local authorities to provide security at hospitals.
Dr K. Preetham, an administrator at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, said the oxygen shortage remained a big concern.
“Because of the scarcity (of oxygen), we are forced to put two patients on one cylinder,” he said.
The World Health Organization said it was working to deliver 4,000 oxygen concentrators to India, where mass gatherings, more contagious variants and low vaccination rates have sparked the outbreak.
“Many people rush to the hospital, even though home-based care monitoring … can be managed very safely,” its spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, told Reuters in an email.
India’s 323,144 new cases over the past 24 hours stood below a worldwide peak of 352,991 hit on Monday, while 2,771 deaths took the toll to 197,894.
But the fewer confirmed infections were largely due to a drop in testing, health economist Rijo M John, of the Indian Institute of Management in the southern state of Kerala, said on Twitter.
“This should not be taken as an indication of falling cases, rather a matter of missing out on too many positive cases,” he said.
Delhi is in lockdown, as are the southern state of Karnataka and the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai.
A patchwork of curbs, complicated by local elections and mass gatherings such as the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, could drive breakouts elsewhere.
About 20,000 devout Hindus gathered by the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar on the last auspicious day of the festival for a bath they believe will wash away their sins.
“We believe Mother Ganga will protect us,” said a woman on the riverbank, where people bathed with few signs of distancing measures.
India has turned to its armed forces for help as new cases have topped 300,000 since April 21.
Even China, locked in a military standoff with India on their disputed Himalayan border, said it was trying to get medical supplies to its neighbour.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged all citizens to get vaccinated. In some cities, bodies were being cremated in makeshift facilities in parks and parking lots, and television channels showed bodies crammed into an ambulance in the western city of Beed as transport ran short.
‘WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER’
India has converted hotels and railway coaches into critical care facilities to make up for the shortage of beds, but experts say the next crisis will be a lack of healthcare professionals.
The Indian Medical Association also said private hospitals in the western city of Surat would have to shut if they did not get oxygen soon, citing security concerns.
Companies ranging from conglomerates such as Tata Group and Reliance Industries Ltd to Jindal Steel and Power have stepped forward to help supply medical oxygen.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said India’s economy, the world’s sixth largest, could falter because of the spike in cases, creating a drag for the global economy.
Australia halted direct passenger flights from India until May 15, joining other nations taking steps to keep out more virulent variants.
India, with a population of about 1.3 billion, has a tally of 17.64 million infections, but experts believe it runs much higher.
Vaccine demand has outstripped supply, partly because of a shortage of raw materials and a fire at a facility making the AstraZeneca shot.
Supply uncertainty could force Maharashtra to postpone inoculations for people aged between 18 and 45, a government official said.
India is negotiating with the United States, which has said it will share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine with other countries. A senior official participating in the talks said Modi had been assured of priority for India.
(Reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra in Bengaluru, Rupam Jain and Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai, Amlan Chakraborty and Sanjeev Miglani in Delhi, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in Satara and Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad; Writing by Himani Sarkar and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams)