The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s coronavirus death toll tops 200,000 as infections surge and anger grows

A covid-19 patient in a car receives oxygen provided by a Sikh house of worship in New Delhi on April 24, 2021. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

India on Wednesday reported another record number of coronavirus cases and deaths, nudging its official covid-19 death toll past 200,000 as the virus coursed through urban centers and out into rural areas, leaving broken families and communities in its wake.

In a new global record, Indian authorities logged 360,960 infections in a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of cases to more than 17.9 million. India also reported 3,293 deaths, even as experts warned that many virus fatalities were going uncounted.

Coronavirus has crushed India’s health system. Patients are on their own.

India is driving a worldwide surge in cases, accounting for 38 percent of infections recorded in the seven-day period ending April 25, the World Health Organization said.

The global impact of the crisis has spurred some nations to step in and offer support, including the United States as President Biden who this week pledged vaccine materials, therapeutics and oxygen concentrators.

Speaking to Good Morning America on Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said that the United States was “deploying a strike team this week to go and assist” and working to get supplies to India “as soon as we can.”

Canada said Tuesday that it was sending $10 million to India’s Red Cross to fund ambulance services and personal protective equipment. And Singapore on Wednesday was transporting hundreds of oxygen cylinders to India on two C-130 aircraft.

South Korea also pledged to send “urgent medical supplies,” India’s ANI news agency reported, quoting its embassy in New Delhi.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday and said that planeloads of ventilators, oxygen-production units and other medical supplies were on the way to India, the Kremlin announced. India plans to begin manufacturing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in May to boost its vaccine supply.

China has repeatedly offered assistance to India, but Delhi has yet to accept those offers, pointing to a widening rift between the two countries, CNN reports.

India’s hospitals have faced severe oxygen supply shortages as the devastating wave of cases overwhelms the country’s health-care infrastructure. Many Indians have taken to social media to crowdsource oxygen cylinders and lifesaving drugs, or even plead for information on open hospital beds.

“The state is not available anywhere,” political activist Sadaf Jafar said in an interview with The Washington Post.

On Wednesday, just 10 intensive care beds were available for covid-19 patients in the capital, New Delhi, a city of more than 17 million people, according to a government dashboard.

The government pledged to mobilize resources, including from the armed forces, which said it was tapping into its own oxygen supply and pulling retired medical personnel back into service to assist with the crisis. Police in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, said they arrested dozens of people for selling oxygen cylinders and medicine used to treat covid-19 on the black market.

But in many places, that help may be coming too late. In some cities, including Delhi, makeshift crematoriums have been erected to cope with the growing number of dead. And over the past week alone, according to official figures, more than 2,000 infected people have died in India every day. That number is widely understood to be an underestimate: Journalists in the state of Gujarat found that more than 90 cremations and burials had taken place under coronavirus protocols in the past two days, but the state government’s data showed only eight deaths during that same period.

“Cremations are now being held on pavements as bodies pile up,” India’s the Wire news website reported Tuesday from the city of Nashik, where last week an oxygen leak at a hospital killed 22 coronavirus patients.

The Scroll, another independent news website, reported that “people are dropping dead like flies” in villages in Uttar Pradesh, as the virus spreads to more rural regions of the country.

“In villages, people are dying of fever and breathlessness even before they can be tested for the disease,” the site reported.

Local media outlets reported Tuesday that the wave of fatalities has even reached Modi’s family, as the prime minister’s aunt died at the age of 80 while undergoing treatment at a hospital.

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that multiple virus variants now circulating in India were accelerating the outbreak. At least two, which were first detected in Britain and South Africa, have been linked with higher rates of transmission.

One variant identified in India in December, known as B.1.617, has several mutations associated with increased transmissibility, the WHO said, but it was unclear if that variant was responsible for the surge.

Before the stunning increase in cases, the Indian government had described the virus as largely defeated and relaxed public health measures and allowed large crowds to gather for religious festivals and political rallies.

India plans to open up vaccinations to everyone over the age of 18 on May 1, but a government website allowing people to preregister for appointments crashed soon after those slots opened up Wednesday.

Outrage at the government over the crisis was growing. The Indian Medical Association issued a scathing statement describing Modi as a “failed prime minister” and “super spreader” who held massive political rallies instead of strengthening the country’s health-care infrastructure.

On Wednesday, following a public outcry, authorities scrapped plans to use a luxury hotel in New Delhi as a coronavirus facility to treat India’s high-court judges.

Government officials said the day before that they had reserved 100 rooms at the Ashoka Hotel to treat judges, court staff and their relatives, even as other hospitals in the city have turned away desperate and dying patients.

“Who is responsible for the oxygen and vaccine shortages? Where is the Indian state?” read a column posted Tuesday on the Wire.

Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.