Medical workers at a Delhi banquet hall that has been converted into a Covid quarantine centre. India’s surge in coronavirus infections has led to shortages in oxygen supplies. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images
Indian authorities scrambled to shore up supplies of medical oxygen to hospitals in the capital, Delhi, on Wednesday as a fast-spreading second wave of coronavirus stretched medical infrastructure to breaking point, officials and doctors said.
India, the world’s second-most populous country, is reporting the world’s highest number of new daily cases and is approaching a peak of about 297,000 cases in one day that the US hit in January.
Delhi’s government issued a call for help on social media, saying major government hospitals only had enough oxygen to last eight to 24 hours while some private ones had enough for just four or five hours.
One hospital, the GTB hospital, received some oxygen supplies just before it was going to run out of stocks for its 500 patients, media reported.
“We had almost lost hope,” one relieved doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told India Today. “All of us were in tears when we saw the oxygen tanker arrive.”
The city of 20 million recorded 28,395 new cases and 277 deaths on Tuesday, it's the highest tally since the pandemic began. Every third person tested for coronavirus was found positive, the state government said.
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, said India faced a coronavirus “storm” overwhelming its health system.
A worker waits to transfer the body of a patient who died of coronavirus at a crematorium in New Delhi. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images
“Oxygen demand has increased,” Modi said in a televised address to the country on Tuesday evening. “We are working with speed and sensitivity to ensure oxygen to all those who need it. The centre, states and private companies, all are working together.”
Modi faces criticism that his administration lowered its guard when coronavirus infections fell to a multi-month low in February, allowing religious festivals and political rallies, some of which he addressed, to go ahead.
“The situation was manageable until a few weeks ago,” Modi said in his address. “The second wave of infections has come like a storm.” He urged citizens to stay indoors and not panic amid India’s worst health emergency in memory.
India has launched a vaccination campaign but only a tiny fraction of its population have received shots. Delhi is under a six-day lockdown to try to stem the transmission. The western state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital, Mumbai, also plans to impose a stringent lockdown this week to try to halt the rise in cases, according to the cabinet.
Modi ordered a stringent lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people when coronavirus was detected last year but his government has always been wary of the huge economic costs of tough restrictions. On Tuesday he said a lockdown should only be a last resort.