Virus 'swallowing people like a monster' in Covid-hit nation

The Associated Press
·6-min read

A crematorium worker says Covid-19 is “swallowing” his city’s population “like a monster” amid surging cases of coronavirus in India.

For the fourth straight day, India on Sunday set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by an insidious new variant.

The surge has undermined the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.

The 349,691 confirmed infections over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.

Experts say this toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many Covid-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.

Patients at temporary Covid Care Centre at Commonwealth Games Village near Akshardham Temple in New Delhi, India.
Patients receive care at a temporary Covid Care Centre at Commonwealth Games Village in New Delhi. Source: Getty Images

The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.

In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet officials say there are still hours-long waits.

At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8 million put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.

Relatives of a person who died of Covid-19 at the crematorium, at Sector 94,  in Noida, India.
Relatives mourn the death of a loved one from Covid-19 at a crematorum in Noida, India. Source: Getty Images

“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site said.

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 New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people have been buried during the pandemic, said more bodies are arriving now than last year.

“I fear we will run out of space very soon,” Mohammad Shameem said.

Relatives carry the body of a Covid-19 victim for cremation, at Seema Puri crematorium, in New Delhi, India.
A family carry the body of their relative for cremation, at Seema Puri crematorium, in New Delhi. Source: Getty Images

Grim reality facing hospitals

The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen.

 Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that’s being sold on the black market at an exponential markup.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen”, in a statement made Saturday by India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister only in January had declared victory over Covid-19, and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy”, a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

A family member of Covid-19 patient carries an empty cylinder to refill outside the oxygen filling center at Dilshad Garden Area in New Delhi, India.
A man looks to refill an oxygen tank. Source: Getty Images

India 'caught off-guard'

Caught off-guard by the latest deadly spike, the federal government has asked industrialists to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs in short supply. But health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable — and it didn’t.

Dr Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the government should have used the last year, when the virus was more under control, to stockpile medicines and develop systems to confront the likelihood of a new surge.

“Most importantly, they should have looked at what was going on in other parts of the world and understood that it was a matter of time before they would be in a similar situation,” Dr Kuppalli said.

Instead, the government’s premature declarations of victory over the pandemic created a “false narrative”, which encouraged people to relax health measures when they should have continued strict adherence to physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.

A view inside the temporary Covid Care Centre set up at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital, in New Delhi, India.
A man receives treatment at Shehnai Banquet Hall attached to LNJP Hospital, in New Delhi. Source: Getty Images

Prime Minister faces criticism

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies that experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections.

At one such rally on April 17, Mr Modi expressed his delight at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly surge was inevitable with India already counting 250,000 new daily cases.

Now, with the death toll mounting, his Hindu nationalist government is trying to quell critical voices.

On Saturday, Twitter complied with the government’s request and prevented people in India from viewing more than 50 tweets that appeared to criticise the administration’s handling of the pandemic. The targeted posts include tweets from opposition ministers critical of Mr Modi, journalists and ordinary Indians.

A Twitter spokesperson said it had powers to “withhold access to the content in India only” if the company determined the content to be “illegal in a particular jurisdiction". The company said it had responded to an order by the government and notified people whose tweets were withheld.

Police detain people who flouted the Covid-19 coronavirus safety protocols of wearing face mask during an awareness drive held in Siliguri.
Police arrest a man in Siliguri after he flouted Covid-19 safety protocols. Source: Getty Images

India’s Information Technology Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, told ABC’s “This Week” that the US would review how to increase India’s vaccine supply, such as by sending doses or helping India “to essentially make vaccines themselves".

The White House said national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke by phone Sunday with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, and that the US is ’’working around the clock” to send supplies.

Help and support were also offered from archrival Pakistan, with politicians, journalists and citizens in the neighboring country expressing solidarity. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief 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 to Mr Qureshi’s statement.

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