India‘s crematoriums and burial grounds are being overwhelmed by the devastating new surge of infections tearing through the populous country with terrifying speed, depleting the supply of life-saving oxygen to critical levels and leaving patients to die while waiting in line to see doctors.
For the fourth straight day, India on Sunday set a global daily record for new infections, spurred by an insidious new variant, undermining the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.
The 349,691 confirmed cases over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million, behind only the United States globally. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s Covid-19 fatalities to 192,311.
Experts say that toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many deaths from the infection are being attributed to underlying conditions.
The crisis unfolding in India is most visceral in its 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 Indian capital New Delhi, where lockdown was extended for a further week on Sunday, are running out of space and funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.
In central Bhopal city, 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 put the total number of virus deaths in the city at just 10.
“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site.
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,” said Sharma. “It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”
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 is being sold at an exponential mark-up.
The crisis 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.
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.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday said the United States is “deeply concerned” by the severe outbreak in India. “We are working around the clock to deploy more supplies and support to our friends and partners in India as they bravely battle this pandemic,” Sullivan tweeted.
Help and support also appeared to arrive from archrival Pakistan, with politicians, journalists and citizens in the neighboring country expressing support for people in India. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief support 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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said on Sunday her government was preparing emergency aid.
“To the people of India I want to express my sympathy on the terrible suffering that Covid-19 has again brought over your communities,” Merkel said in a message shared on Twitter by her spokesman Steffen Seibert.
“The fight against the pandemic is our common fight. Germany stands in solidarity with India and is urgently preparing a mission of support.”