COVID-19 update: India sends army to help hospitals hit by coronavirus as countries promise aid

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A general view of the mass cremation of those who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a crematorium in New Delhi, India April 26, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: India ordered its armed forces on Monday to help tackle surging new coronavirus infections that are overwhelming hospitals, as countries including Britain, Germany and the United States pledged to send urgent medical aid.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said oxygen would be released to hospitals from armed forces reserves and retired medical military personnel would join COVID-19 health facilities.

And where possible, military medical infrastructure will be made available to civilians, a government statement said, as new coronavirus infections hit a record peak for a fifth day.

“Air, Rail, Road & Sea; Heaven & earth are being moved to overcome challenges thrown up by this wave of COVID-19,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Twitter.

Modi on Sunday urged all citizens to get vaccinated and to exercise caution amid what he called a “storm” of infections, while hospitals and doctors in some northern states posted urgent notices saying they were unable to cope with the influx.

In some of the worst-hit cities, bodies were being burnt in makeshift facilities offering mass cremations.

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People queue up for COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India, Monday, April 26, 2021. Image Credit: AP

The southern state of Karnataka, home to the tech city of Bengaluru, ordered a 14-day lockdown from Tuesday, joining the western industrial state of Maharashtra, where lockdowns run until May 1, although some states were also set to lift lockdown measures this week.

The patchy curbs, complicated by local elections and mass festival gatherings, could prompt breakouts elsewhere, as infections rose by 352,991 in the last 24 hours, with crowded hospitals running out of oxygen supplies and beds.

“Currently the hospital is in beg-and-borrow mode and it is an extreme crisis situation,” said a spokesman for the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in the capital, New Delhi.

Fire

Following a fire at a hospital in the western diamond industry hub of Surat, five COVID-19 patients died after being moved to other hospitals that lacked space in their intensive care units, a municipal official told Reuters.

Television channel NDTV broadcast images of three health workers in the eastern state of Bihar pulling a body along the ground on its way to cremation, as stretchers ran short.

“If you’ve never been to a cremation, the smell of death never leaves you,” Vipin Narang, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, said on Twitter.

“My heart breaks for all my friends and family in Delhi and India going through this hell.” On Sunday, President Joe Biden said the United States would send raw materials for vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear. Germany joined a growing list of countries pledging supplies.

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Oxygen Concentrators loaded by Air India at JFK Airport in the US on their way to Delhi. Image Credit: ANI

In Moscow, which expects 50 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to be made each month in India this summer, a Kremlin spokesman expressed concern over the situation.

India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has an official tally of 17.31 million infections and 195,123 deaths, after 2,812 deaths overnight, health ministry data showed, although health experts say the figures probably run higher.

The surge in infections hit oil prices amid worries about a fall in fuel demand in the world’s third-biggest oil importer.

Rally backlash

Several cities have ordered curfews, while police enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. Politicians have faced criticism for holding rallies during state election campaigns that draw thousands into packed stadiums.

About 8.6 million voters were expected to cast ballots on Monday in the eastern state of West Bengal, in the final phases of a contest set to wrap up this week. Also voting in local elections was the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has been reporting an average of 30,000 infections a day.

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Health workers distribute evening tea to patients in a ward at the COVID-19 Care Center set up at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) Village Sports Complex in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Modi’s plea on vaccinations came after inoculations peaked at 4.5 million doses on April 5, but have since averaged about 2.7 million a day, government figures show.

Virologists said more infectious variants of the virus, including an Indian one, have fuelled the resurgence.

The government told people to stay indoors and follow hygiene protocols. “Please don’t invite people into your home… It has become clearer that the transmissibility of this virus is faster,” said senior health official Vinod Kumar Paul.

Vaccine demand has outpaced supply as the inoculation campaign widened this month, while companies struggle to boost output, partly because of a shortage of raw material and a fire at a facility making the AstraZeneca dose.

However, the federal government will not import vaccines itself but expects states and companies to do so instead, in a step aimed at backing domestic manufacturers, two government officials told Reuters.

Neighbouring Bangladesh sealed its border with India for 14 days, its foreign ministry said, though trade will continue. Air travel has been suspended since Bangladesh imposed a lockdown on April 14 to combat record infections and deaths.

India on Monday sent an aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to transport six empty cryogenic oxygen containers, Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor told Gulf News. Read more

The Madras High Court on Monday lashed out against the Election Commission and said “it is the most irresponsible institution in the country” who have done nothing to prevent political parties from breaching COVID-19 protocol.

“You (EC) are the only institution responsible for the situation we are in today and You have been singularly lacking any kind of exercise of authority. You have not taken measures against political parties holding rallies despite the court saying “Maintain Covid protocol, maintain Covid protocol.” Read more

Switzerland puts India on COVID-19 quarantine list

Switzerland has added India to its list of high-risk countries from which travellers must enter quarantine. Arrivals from India must immediately go into quarantine, under the government restrictions which go into effect at 1600 GMT on Monday, the Federal Office of Public Health said on its website.

Wealthy Indians flee by private jet

India’s mounting coronavirus crisis is prompting wealthy families to flee the country by private jet.

With reports of hospital bed and drug shortages sweeping social media, Indian tycoons and others who are not so well off but fearful for their health are booking flights to bolt holes in Europe, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, Bloomberg reported

“It’s not only the ultra rich,” said Rajan Mehra, chief executive officer at New Delhi-based private jet firm Club One Air. “Whoever can afford to take a private jet are taking private jets.”