NEW DELHI – India’s healthcare system shows signs of buckling under the strain of a second wave of coronavirus infections, as authorities reported nearly 300,000 new cases on Wednesday and a crash at a Covid-19 hospital killed more than 20 people.
The accident happened at a hospital in the western state of Maharashtra after a leak in the hospital’s main oxygen tank stopped the flow of oxygen to dozens of critically ill people. TV footage showed family members crying in the wards and nurses frantically pounding the breasts of some patients.
All week, hospitals in India have warned of a severe oxygen shortage. Many hospital officials said they were only hours away from running out. “No one imagined this would happen,” said Subhash Salunke, a medical adviser to the government of Maharashtra.
India is now the scene of the world’s fastest growing Covid-19 crisis, reporting 294,000 new infections and more than 2,000 deaths on Wednesday. As stocks of hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines run out, government criticism is mounting.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to be more careful, but said lockdowns were a last resort. States and cities are increasingly stranded on their own, and critics say the government’s mixed messages are making matters worse.
As an example, they cite the recent political rallies organized by Mr. Modi that have drawn thousands of people, as well as the government’s decision to allow a huge Hindu festival to continue despite signs that it has become a very common event. A few days ago, Mr. Modi indicated that he wanted Hindu worshipers to stay away from this year’s festival, called the Kumbh Mela, which is held on the banks of the Ganges, considered sacred by many. Hindus.
But worshipers keep coming – 70,000 showed up for a holy bath on Wednesday, bringing the total to more than 10 million since the festival began in January – and government officials on the ground are doing little to stop them.
Organizers of the event said worshipers were required to produce a negative coronavirus test result or be tested on site, but also acknowledged that with such a crowd, some attendees could have crept in without being tested. The photographs show a sea of worshipers crammed into the gray waters of the river, most of them without masks. More than 1,000 have tested positive at the site in just 48 hours, according to Indian news media reports.
Leaders of India’s political opposition and religious minorities claim that Mr. Modi’s government, which is firmly anchored in a Hindu worldview, grants preferential treatment to Hindus.
“This is a clear example of a double standard,” said Khalid Rasheed, president of the Islamic Center of India, a religious nonprofit organization.
He compared the government’s apparent endorsement of the Kumbh to how it handled a much smaller gathering of a few thousand Islamic preachers in New Delhi last March. Not only was the seminary that housed it closed, but hundreds of people were also arrested. Officials in Mr. Modi’s party accused the seminar of spreading the virus.
This sparked an anti-Muslim campaign across India in which Muslims were attacked with cricket bats and fled their neighborhoods. Many Muslims arrested at the seminary a year ago are still awaiting trial.
Government officials have defended the Kumbh festival as safe as the virus infects some of its most prominent attendees, including the former king of Nepal and his wife.
Another visitor who has been infected is Tirath Singh Rawat, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, who as the host state for this year’s festival is expected to derive millions in income from pilgrims and vendors. Mr Rawat mingled freely in the unmasked crowd and told those who questioned him that “faith in God will overcome fear of the virus”.
Shailesh Bagauli, a state official, said the timing of the festival was determined by “optimal astrological conditions” and the government implemented measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
News of the hospital oxygen leak quickly spread across the country on Wednesday, raising fears that the chronically underfunded health care system here is on the verge of collapse.
Indian news channels broadcast footage of the oxygen leak at Zakir Hussain Hospital in Nashik City.
“When we got there it was foggy,” said SK Bairagi, a city fire chief. He said it took about 30 minutes to repair the tank.
The decrease in oxygen supply is becoming one of the most alarming aspects of India’s second wave. To speed up delivery to hospitals, India’s rail service has started running what it calls “oxygen express” trains across the country.
India’s health ministry said daily oxygen demand in hospitals has reached about 60 percent of the country’s daily production capacity, or just over 7,000 tonnes. Government officials countered reports released this week that India had increased its oxygen exports as the second wave of infections approached, saying these exports represented less than 1% of daily production capacity.
But the health ministry also said it was looking to import 50,000 metric tonnes of medical oxygen from overseas, a sign the Indian government may be concerned about domestic supplies.
On Tuesday evening, more than a dozen hospitals in New Delhi, the capital, issued an alert saying they were hours from running out of oxygen.
In Lucknow, another large city in northern India, Mayo Medical Center warned Wednesday it was reduced to a 15-minute relief supply and “oxygen is not available anywhere in Lucknow.”
Later that day, hospital officials said they had received 40 bottles of oxygen. But medical experts said that with so many people falling ill, it was dangerous to run out of time.
“There is definitely an oxygen shortage across the country,” said Shashank Joshi, endocrinologist and member of the Covid task force in Maharashtra. “The situation is grim.”
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi, andBhadra sharma from Kathmandu, Nepal.