New Delhi: Gasping for air, two men wearing oxygen masks share a bed in a government hospital in India's capital New Delhi, victims of the country's growing COVID-19 crisis.
From reporting under 10,000 new daily cases earlier this year, daily infections crossed 2,00,000 on Thursday, according to official data, the highest anywhere in the world.
At Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP), one of India's largest COVID-only facilities with more than 1,500 beds, a stream of ambulances ferried patients to the overflowing casualty ward on Thursday. Some also arrived in buses and three-wheeled autorickshaws. The youngest patient was a new-born baby.
"Last year also we have not seen such a bad situation. This time the number is very high and increasing very rapidly, going (at a) very fast speed, so the situation is really alarming," said LNJP Medical Director Suresh Kumar.
"We are definitely over-burdened. We are already working at full capacity," Kumar added.
From an initial 54 beds, the hospital now has over 300 for COVID-19 patients in critical condition. Even that is not enough.
Unrelated patients share beds, while bodies of the recently deceased lie outside the ward before being taken to the mortuary.
"Today we have 158 admissions in Lok Nayak alone. All sick patients, all severe patients," Kumar said.
After imposing one of the world's strictest lockdowns for nearly three months last year, India's government relaxed almost all curbs by the beginning of 2021, although many regions have now introduced localised restrictions.
LNJP's Kumar said fast-spreading new variants that evade testing were adding to the burden, as was human behaviour as the country reopened.
"People are not following the COVID guidelines," he said. "They are just careless."
Outside the hospital's mortuary, weeping relatives gathered in the hot sun to wait for the bodies of loved ones to be released.
Prashant Mehra, 40, said he had to pay a broker for preferential treatment before he could get his 90-year-old grandfather admitted to the hospital. The hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks.
Mehra said the effort made little difference in the end. "He died after six or seven hours," he said. "We already asked for our money back."
Hospitals overwhelmed by COVID surge
Many Indian hospitals were scrambling for beds and oxygen as COVID-19 infections surged to a new daily record on Thursday, with a second wave of infections centred on the rich western state of Maharashtra.
India's tally of total infections is second only to the United States, with experts blaming everything from official complacency to aggressive variants. The government has blamed failure to practise physical distancing.
The country has been producing oxygen at full capacity for each of the last two days but will have to turn to imports, with the health ministry saying it was planning to import 50,000 metric tons.
"The situation is horrible," said Avinash Gawande, an official at a government hospital in the industrial city of Nagpur that was battling a flood of patients, as were hospitals in neighbouring Gujarat state and New Delhi in the north.
"We are a 900-bed hospital, but there are about 60 patients waiting and we don't have space for them."
Maharashtra, home to the financial capital of Mumbai, began a lockdown at midnight on Wednesday, a move that spurred a rush to stockpile essential items in advance. The state, the country's most industrial, has been the worst affected by the pandemic.
India has added 200,739 infections over the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, for a seventh daily record surge in the last eight days, while 1,038 deaths took its toll to 173,123.
Despite injecting the third highest number of vaccines doses worldwide, India has covered only a small part of its 1.4 billion people.
India said on Thursday regulators would decide on emergency-use applications for foreign COVID-19 vaccines within three working days. India's ambassador to Moscow said deliveries of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to India were expected to begin before the end of April, the TASS news agency reported.
In New Delhi, authorities ordered a weekend curfew, placing curbs on shopping malls, gyms, restaurants and some weekly markets.
Outside a major city mortuary, weeping relatives gathered in the hot sun, waiting for the bodies of loved ones to be released.
Supplies of oxygen ran short in places such as Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"If such conditions persist, the death toll will rise," the head of a medical body in the industrial city of Ahmedabad told its chief minister in a letter.
Billionaire Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries will supply 100 metric tonnes of additional oxygen to Maharashtra, a state minister said.
In the northern city of Haridwar, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronged to a Hindu religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges on Wednesday, stoking fears of a new surge.
(Reporting by Neha Arora, Sachin Ravikumar. Danish Siddiqui and Alasdair Pal)