India is airlifting emergency oxygen tanks as it battles with a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 infections that Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday said “had shaken the nation”.
New Delhi reported it had recorded a world record 349,000 new infections on Saturday, along with more than 2,700 deaths as the country’s second wave breaks global milestones.
A total of 190,000 people are reported to have died from Covid-19 in India, though experts believe the true number of cases and deaths is being widely undercounted as sick patients struggle to get tested and fatalities are misreported.
Chronic shortages of beds and oxygen have left hospitals in hotspots such as Delhi pleading publicly for relief, while patients die for want of treatment — even while they queue outside hospitals waiting to be seen. More than 20 patients died at one private hospital in Delhi, Jaipur Golden, after oxygen supplies ran low.
Modi and his government have been criticised for failing to prepare health systems for the latest wave. In a radio address on Sunday, Modi said the central government was fully engaged in addressing the crisis. “After successfully combating the first wave, the country was filled with confidence, but this storm has shaken the nation,” he said.
Public health experts are alarmed by the suspected role of the B. 1.617 variant, which was discovered in India last month, in driving the surge. Health officials in the UK, where the strain has also been detected, are studying whether it is more infectious and vaccine evasive. The UK last week put India on its travel “red list” in response to the rise in cases.
The Indian Air Force on Saturday flew in four oxygen containers from Singapore. India is also expected to begin importing equipment for emergency oxygen production and supply from other countries such as Germany and the United Arab Emirates.
Rudra Chaudhuri, director of the Carnegie India think-tank, said the airlifts had little parallel in modern Indian history. “In an emergency situation like this, even the spectre of . . . aircraft landing in Indian bases with oxygen tankers is pretty unprecedented and I can only suspect there will be more of this in the coming days,” he said. “The fact is that there has been a public administration crisis in this country with regards to planning.”
Analysts have blamed complacency for the shortages of beds and health supplies — in a country that enjoys the moniker of “pharmacy of the world” for its medical manufacturing prowess — as officials failed to anticipate such a severe burden on the health system. The government is also accused of exacerbating the crisis by holding mass election rallies and allowing a giant religious festival to go ahead long after it was clear the virus was out of control.
Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian of modern India, wrote that the current wave might be “the gravest crisis the nation has faced since Partition”, referring to the subcontinent’s bloody separation into India and Pakistan in 1947.
In Delhi, which has gone back into lockdown to try to arrest the surge, hospitals have repeatedly been left with as little as an hour of oxygen and forced to put out public “SOS” calls for top-ups.
In cities around the country, officials have reimposed restrictions, hospitals have been unable to keep up with the arrival of sick patients and cremation and burial grounds have been overwhelmed by dead bodies.
Even as countries step in to help India’s public health response, others such as the UK and US have been roundly criticised for their inaction so far.
Indian vaccine manufacturers and analysts have blamed the US’s use of wartime powers to restrict exports of certain raw materials used in vaccine production for exacerbating the slow pace of the country’s inoculation drive.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Twitter on Sunday that Washington was “working closely with our partners in the Indian government, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, who faced a backlash for criticising India’s decision to scale back pharmaceutical and vaccine exports during the recent crisis, also promised assistance. “Germany stands in solidarity with India and is urgently preparing a mission of support,” she said in a message tweeted by the government’s spokesman.