Hundred of Indians, including Delhi government administrators, have begged for help finding supplies of oxygen and other crucial medical supplies on social media as India reels from a devastating second wave of coronavirus, leading to caseloads growing by nearly 300,000 every day.
Faulty oxygen supplies at a western Indian hospital have killed more than 20 Covid-19 patients adding to the country’s highest-ever daily death toll from the virus.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, fiercely criticised for continuing to hold large election rallies throughout last week as the scale of the outbreak was becoming clear, said the virus was hitting the country “like a storm”. Hospitals are overwhelmed, many migrant workers are leaving cities and people are turning to social media for help finding medical attention, hospital beds and drugs.
The rapid glut of cases – including a record 295,000 on Tuesday, close to the largest number recorded on a single day anywhere since the pandemic emerged – has stretched supplies of beds in intensive care units, ventilators and oxygen. There was shock across the capital, Delhi, on Tuesday night when the city’s chief minister warned on Twitter that oxygen supplies in the city’s hospitals could run out within eight hours in public hospitals and sooner in some private facilities.
Adding to the sense of crisis, at least 22 patients died in a hospital in western India on Wednesday after a leak interrupted its oxygen supply, the Maharashtra state health minister said. The incident in the city of Nashik, one of India’s worst-hit areas, happened after the tank of gas leaked, said Rajesh Tope, the minister.
“Patients who were on ventilators at the hospital in Nashik have died,” he said in televised remarks. “The leakage was spotted at the tank supplying oxygen to these patients. The interrupted supply could be linked to the deaths of the patients in the hospital.”
With medical infrastructure overwhelmed even in large cities, residents have been forced to use their own networks to find medical assistance and equipment. Seema Choudhury, an English tutor in a south Delhi neighbourhood, put out a plea for help on WhatsApp when she discovered her neighbours, a couple in their 70s with Covid-19, were becoming sicker.
“Urgent help needed. The Guptas are in pretty bad shape. They need oxygen but can’t find any. Please help,” she wrote to a neighbourhood group. By the evening, the couple had managed to source oxygen tanks marked up to twice their ordinary price.
Such assistance was harder to get in smaller cities such as Lucknow in northern India, where Anil Tiwari said he spent Monday trying to find medical assistance for his father, Ranjan, whose Covid-19 symptoms had worsened in their tenth day.
Tiwari told the Guardian he tried 10 hospitals without finding a free bed. When he did find room at a smaller medical facility, he was told on Tuesday that supplies were running low and his father – whose oxygen levels were dipping – needed to be moved to another hospital.
“Some friends, God knows how, managed to get a small oxygen cylinder and I drove around with Papa in the back seat attached to the cylinder hoping to get a bed,” Tiwari said. “His anxiety level was high. I kept reassuring him, giving him hope. But he died in the car.”
He said his blamed his father’s death not on Covid but, “a failure of the system, of the leadership, to create medical infrastructure for which I pay taxes”.
Testing infrastructure has also been overwhelmed by the wave, which is combined with bureaucratic hurdles to prevent many from being admitted to hospital. “When I tested positive on Saturday, I wanted my parents to get tested too, but the lab told me not to come until Friday as it had a huge backlog,” said Swati Arora, 28, in Delhi.
Without a positive test result, many hospitals are refusing to admit patients, and some are dying in the interim as they await proof they have the disease. “With this delay in testing, we are getting patients who have deteriorated while waiting and when they reach us in this condition, we can’t save them,” said a doctor in Delhi who asked not to be named.
Experts have speculated the resurgence of cases over the past eight weeks may be the result of highly infectious variants that have taken advantage of the resumption of normal life in most of India in recent months as cases sharply declined. Modi and other political leaders have held mass rallies in West Bengal, where elections are being fought, while the Kumbh Mela religious festival attracted more than 10 million adherents to the northern city of Haridwar this month.
The latest daily death toll of 2,023 people on Tuesday suggests the virus is still significantly less deadly among India’s young population than it has been elsewhere in the world, although official statistics are thought to be highly unreliable and sometimes deliberately undercounted.
“The best way to figure out [the death toll] is to see the jump in use of crematoria and graveyards,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, a virologist and director of the Trivedi school of biosciences at Ashoka University. “There are reports that crematoria that would take 10 to 20 bodies a day are now piling up about 100 a day.”
The central government said on Monday it would lift age restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines to anyone over 18 from 1 May, although supplies are already thought to be under pressure and it is unclear whether the vaccination rate could exceed 3m a day, one of the fastest rates in the world but short of what is required to rapidly inoculate an adult population of about 900 million people.
Underscoring the fact that India will not be able to vaccinate its way out of the crisis in the medium term, the country’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India, said on Wednesday it would not be able to increase its production rate to 100m until July, later than its earlier estimate of the end of May. It currently produces between 60 and 70m doses a month.
Despite the soaring infections, Indian leaders are reluctant to reimpose widespread lockdowns of the kind that led to an exodus of migrant workers from cities last year, the largest mass migration in the country since Partition in 1947.
Modi has instead advised state leaders to try to quarantine neighbourhoods and villages where infections are most acute, though bus and train stations have been packed over the past week with people fearing they might again be forced to stop going to work and be stranded in cities without salaries.