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NEW DELHI (AP) – Coronavirus cases in India soared again on Friday, prompting the military to open its hospitals in a desperate attempt to bring a massive humanitarian crisis created by an acute shortage of beds, medicine and oxygen .
With 386,452 new cases, India has reported more than 18.7 million since the start of the pandemic, just behind the United States. The health ministry also reported 3,498 deaths in the past 24 hours on Friday, bringing the total to 208,330 people. Experts believe both figures are underestimated, but it’s unclear by how much.
Struggling to find hospital beds, distraught people are flooding social media and messaging apps with heartbreaking calls for oxygen, medicine and the room in intensive care units.
Indian army chief MM Naravane met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday to discuss the crisis.
Naravane said sick people could seek help from the nearest army hospitals. The troops have also provided assistance with imported tankers and oxygen vehicles where specialized skills are needed, according to a government statement.
India has set a daily world record for more than a week with an average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have almost tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest outbreak.
In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, a school teachers’ organization said more than 550 members had died after being infected with COVID-19 while participating in the conduct of elections in the local council this month, the Times of India newspaper reported.
Experts blamed the outbreak on new, more contagious virus variants and mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events that were allowed to continue. On Thursday, millions of people voted in the national elections in West Bengal with little to no consideration for social distancing.
In the southern state of Karnataka, Revenue Minister R. Ashoka said nearly 2,000 coronavirus patients in home care had turned off their phones and could not be traced. Police were trying to follow them as they might seek hospitalization on their own, he said.
In central Madhya Pradesh state, three villages in Balaghat district have pooled money to convert buildings into COVID-19 health centers. They bought oxygen concentrators and started admitting patients. Government doctors visit the facilities twice a day.
India plans to step up a failing vaccination campaign by allowing all adults 18 and over to receive their vaccines starting on Saturday. It has so far administered 150 million doses of the vaccine, according to the health ministry.
Since January, nearly 10% of Indians have received a dose, but only around 1.5% have received both, despite India being one of the world’s largest vaccine producers.
Health Minister Harash Vardhan expressed hope that aid sent by more than 40 countries will fill the shortage of medical supplies. The United States sends more than $ 100 million worth of items, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests.
Japan announced Friday that it will send 300 ventilators and 300 oxygen concentrators in response to the Indian government’s request. “Japan stands alongside India, our friend and partner,” the Foreign Ministry said.
France, Germany, Ireland and Australia also pledged aid, and Russia sent two planes carrying oxygen-generating equipment. The Indian Air Force has also airlifted oxygen containers from Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok.