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COVID-19 infections escalate in India ‘like a tsunami’

Weeks ago this country was claiming the pandemic was nearing its “endgame”. Today, it reached a terrible virus milestone not seen in the world.

There have been warnings for months this nation of 1.4 billion people was a COVID-19 time bomb. And it appears that time bomb is now exploding.

The escalating virus situation in India has been likened to a “tsunami” as the nation breaks a terrible new record for daily infections and the insufficient health care buckles under the weight of it all.

India’s health ministry reported 312,731 new infections in 24 hours on Thursday, the highest daily case count in a single country since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The previous daily record of 300,669 cases was set by the United States in January.

What’s even more frightening is the quickening pace of the virus spread in India, the world’s second largest population.

Just two months ago, India was reporting fewer than 100 deaths from COVID-19 each day. On Thursday, it reported 2104 deaths, and the average daily death toll this week was 1300.

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The country is now well and truly in the league of other worst-hit nations, such as the US and Brazil — today, 40 per cent of all new cases are coming from India, and with 15.6 million Indians infected since the pandemic began, it is now second place to the US for total cases.

The situation has become so dire that the Federal Government said on Thursday it was slashing the number of arrivals from India by a third, a move that will make it difficult for Australians in India to come home, and others to travel there for important events like as weddings and funerals.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the high caseload in India was “not something we could ignore”. New Zealand, the US, the UK and Pakistan have made similar moves to limit arrivals from India.

Meanwhile, in India, cremations and burials are happening around the clock and hospitals are running out of ventilators and oxygen as the rate of daily infections continue to climb.

Ambulances carrying patients are lining up outside hospitals because there are no beds inside, and at the Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai, the lobby has been converted into a makeshift COVID ward.

“The volume is humungous,” Jalil Parkar, a senior pulmonary consultant at the hospital, told CNN. “It’s just like a tsunami.”

Experts have similarly described India’s failing healthcare system in no uncertain terms.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, told CNN “things are out of control”.

“There’s no oxygen. A hospital bed is hard to find. It’s impossible to get a test. You have to wait over a week,” he said.

“And pretty much every system that could break down in the health care system has broken down.”

Krutika Kuppalli, infectious diseases expert at the Medical University of South Carolina, tweeted that “COVID-19 has become a public health crisis in India leading to a collapse of the healthcare system”.

Melbourne medical practitioner Dr Vyom Sharma told The Project on Thursday he had several relatives in India with COVID-19 but insisted they were “the lucky ones”.

“We actually managed to find hospital beds for them, with some difficulty. There are many people who cannot get a bed at all,” he said.

“A lot of people who are in hospital beds, they have discovered that oxygen has run out. So, (it is) just not an exaggeration to say that the health system is collapsing and despite how terrible things are for us and our family, we are one of the lucky ones.”

As resources dwindle and hospitals reach capacity in an already patchy hospital system, mishap has compounded the crisis. On Wednesday, 22 people died in the state of Maharashtra when oxygen leaked from the main taker supplying oxygen to COVID-19 patients. In Maharashtra, the daily demand for oxygen is higher than what the state can produce.

Footage aired on TV has shown people carrying empty oxygen cylinders packing refill facilities in a desperate bid to save their loved ones.

In a piece for the Economic Times, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the executive chairman of Indian healthcare firm Biocon & Biocon Biologics, blamed complacency for India’s current crisis.

“We never thought a second wave would hit us so hard,” she wrote.

“Complacency led to unanticipated shortages of medicines, medical supplies and hospital beds.”

India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, imposed a brutal lockdown in the early months the pandemic last year but critics have accused it of relaxing measures too much and failing to prepare the nation for a second wave.

Tens of thousands of spectators have filled cricket stadiums and Mr Modi’s party has held a series of large political rallies.

On Monday, millions of pilgrims flocked to the banks of the Ganges River for a massive Hindu ceremony that was allowed to go ahead, despite the escalating infection rate.

“India’s rapid slide into this unprecedented crisis is a direct result of complacency and lack of preparation by the government,” Mr Laxminarayan from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

“As the number of cases dropped significantly in mid-February, the Indian government and various policymakers, cheered on by a pliant, triumphalist media, prematurely declared victory against the pandemic. By early March, senior government ministers were speaking about the endgame of the pandemic in India.”

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Mr Modi acknowledged the country’s “very big battle” against the virus but urged states to use lockdowns “lockdown as their last option”. Despite this, the capital New Delhi imposed a week-long lockdown to quell the spread.

The vaccine is being rolled out across India with more than 132 million people having received at least one dose, but supplies are dwindling.

In the meantime, desperate people are turning to social media begging for medicine for their sick loved ones as the virus spread continues to rage.

Anil Tiwari from Mumbai, whose father died from COVID-19 in November, made a desperate plea on Twitter for an ICU bed for his mother, 58, who is now sick with the virus.

“I’m crying, running to get ICU bed for my mother,” he tweeted on Monday. “Kindly help to save my mother. I love her more than anything.”

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