Demonic Covid wave overwhelm India's hospitals

New Delhi, India: As India's healthcare system buckles under a new wave of infections, Delhi hospitals issued urgent pleas for oxygen on Friday, and 13 Covid patients died in a fire.

The increase in cases, which has been blamed on a new virus variant and the government's approval of "super spreader" public events, has resulted in 330,000 new infections and 2,000 deaths in the last 24 hours.

A local official told AFP that the latest in a series of hospital fires broke out early Friday morning on the outskirts of Mumbai. It was later removed, and the cause was being investigated.

"There were 17 patients inside when a fire broke out in the ICU of Vijay Vallabh Hospital, out of which 13 died and four have been shifted to other facilities," fire department official Morrison Khavari said.

India's healthcare system has long been underfunded, and the recent Covid epidemic has resulted in critical shortages of oxygen, medications, and hospital beds, prompting urgent appeals for assistance.

Earlier this week, 22 Covid-19 patients died at another hospital in the same state of Maharashtra after the oxygen supply to their ventilators was cut off due to a leak.

'Pants down' 

India has reported more than four million infections this month, deflating expectations at the start of the year that the pandemic had peaked.

Because of this misguided conviction, the government relaxed its guard, allowing most activity to resume almost normally, including weddings and the admission of spectators to cricket matches.

The massive Kumbh Mela festival, one of the world's largest religious gatherings, held in the city of Haridwar between January and this week, drew an estimated 25 million Hindu pilgrims, most of whom were not wearing masks or social distancing.

Several state elections have seen large campaign rallies, including one in Kolkata by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which attracted an estimated 800,000 people.

"The government has been caught with its pants down," call center executive Navneet Singh, 38, told AFP.

Many parts of the country have tightened controls, with the capital now under lockdown and all non-essential services prohibited in Maharashtra.

The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 240 million people, will be closed this weekend.

The UAE became the latest country to place travel restrictions on India on Thursday, halting flights on one of the world's busiest air corridors.

Canada also suspended flights from India and Pakistan, both of which have been severely impacted.

Crisis meetings 

Modi planned to hold at least three crisis meetings on Friday to discuss oxygen shortages and the availability of essential medicines.

Hospitals in New Delhi have been making desperate requests for oxygen to the state and national governments on a regular basis.

"SOS -- less than an hour's oxygen supplies at Max Smart Hospital & Max Hospital Saket," one of the biggest private hospital chains in India said on Twitter early Friday morning.

"Over 700 patients admitted, need immediate assistance."

At least six hospitals in the Indian capital ran out of oxygen late Thursday night before deliveries arrived in the early hours.

Medical oxygen tanker trunks have been doing round-the-clock supply runs in a variety of states, and air force transport planes have begun airlifting large oxygen tanks across the world.

On Thursday, the first "Oxygen Express" train left Vizag's southern industrial hub, bound for Maharashtra, with trucks carrying supplies on board.

The coronavirus has now caused more than 16 million cases and 187,000 deaths in India. However, per capita, figures are much smaller than in many other nations.

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