A patient with breathing problems is helped to walk towards an ambulance in Ahmedabad, India. Reuters
India breached 200,000 daily infections for the first time on Thursday and the financial hub of Mumbai entered a lockdown, as many hospitals reported shortages of beds and oxygen supplies.
Having let its guard down with mass religious festivals, political rallies and crowds at cricket matches, India is experiencing a vicious second wave, recording almost two million fresh infections this month alone.
This week, it overtook Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases worldwide, after the United States.
In the past day it also recorded over 1,000 deaths, health ministry data showed, taking its total to 175,000, although on a per-capita basis India is far behind many other countries.
A policewoman rides a Segway in a deserted area between the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. File/AFP
"The situation is horrible. We are a 900-bed hospital, but there are about 60 patients waiting and we don't have space for them," said Avinash Gawande, an official at the Government Medical College and Hospital in Nagpur, a commercial hub in Maharashtra.
The surge was the seventh record daily increase in the last eight days and takes the total caseload to 14.1 million, only second to the United States.
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Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronged to a religious festival in the north of the country on Wednesday, stoking fears of another surge in COVID-19 cases.
Indian hospitals are now struggling to cope, running short of beds, oxygen and coronavirus medicines like Remdesivir.
In a new disturbing trend, doctors across the most-affected cities told AFP they had seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 patients aged below 45 and suffering from more severe symptoms compared to last year.
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"We are also seeing children under the ages of 12 and 15 being admitted with symptoms in the second wave. Last year there were practically no children presenting symptoms," said Khusrav Bajan, a consultant at Mumbai's P.D. Hinduja National Hospital.
The country's drive to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people has also hit obstacles, with just 114 million shots administered so far and stocks running low, according to local authorities. New Delhi has put the brakes on exports from the Serum Institute — which has supplied dozens of nations with covid vaccines — in order to prioritise domestic needs.
Even as infections soar, several religious festivals are ongoing, including the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in northern India, which has seen almost five million Hindu pilgrims — mostly maskless — massing on the banks of the holy Ganges River this week.
The virus was detected in almost 2,000 people in just 48 hours in Haridwar, officials said.
"Our faith is the biggest thing for us. It is because of that strong belief that so many people have come here to take a dip in Ganga," Siddharth Chakrapani, a member of one of the Kumbh Mela organising committees, said.
"They believe that Maa (mother) Ganga will save them from this pandemic." Many crematoriums are also struggling, according to press reports. "Since 9 am we have been waiting outside. Now it is 1 pm and still we need another 2-3 hours for our turn," said one relative outside a crematorium in Bangalore. "There are hundreds of people like us are waiting here."
India has 11.8 million COVID-19 cases, the third-highest amount behind the United States and Brazil.
Total cases have now risen to 11.41 million, the highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. Deaths increased by 131 to 158,856 in the past 24 hours, data from the health ministry showed.
This week, new daily infections were the lowest in eight months, while deaths fell below 100 — the smallest single-day total since May.
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