Millions of Indians voted in elections in the state of West Bengal on Thursday despite fears that people going to the polls may contribute further to the country’s escalating coronavirus catastrophe.
As long queues were reported at polling stations, India’s total recorded coronavirus cases during the pandemic passed 18m. The country reported a record 379,257 new infections on Thursday and 3,645 deaths – its highest daily total.
With large political rallies and gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela festival blamed in part for the ferocity of India’s second wave, the eighth round of voting in West Bengal – one of the few states where the populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, does not have a majority – has inevitably come under scrutiny as the state reported a record 17,000 new cases on Wednesday.
The crisis has overwhelmed India’s health system and required gravediggers and crematorium staff to work around the clock. Experts believe the headline figures from the health ministry probably represent an undercounting of the real scale of the problem. Some medical experts believe that India’s true Covid-19 numbers could be five to 10 times greater than the official tally.
The US has warned its citizens to leave the country, citing its overburdened hospitals.
As India’s military transports key medical supplies including oxygen canisters across the country, hotels and railway coaches have been converted into critical-care facilities to make up for the shortage of hospital beds.
India’s best hope to curb its second wave of Covid-19 infections was to vaccinate its vast population, said experts, and on Wednesday the government opened a registration system to allow everyone over the age of 18 to apply for jabs from Saturday, although some young people said it would only allow over-45s to register.
Only about 9% of India’s 1.4 billion residents have received a dose since the country’s vaccination campaign began in January prioritising health workers and then the elderly.
The government said more than 8 million people had registered, but it was not clear how many had received appointments. Many people complained on social media of difficulty in registering for vaccines despite claims by the government that the system worked smoothly.
Although it is the world’s biggest producer of vaccine, India does not have enough stock for the estimated 800 million people now eligible for it.
“We don’t have vaccines as of now. We have made requests to the company regarding vaccines; we will tell you when it comes,” said the Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain when asked about the inoculation of over-18s from 1 May.
Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, said: “People who could have been saved are dying.” He added that there had been “serious undercounting” of deaths in many states.
India thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September, but infections began to increase again in February. On Wednesday, 362,757 newly confirmed cases – a global record – pushed the country’s total past 17.9m, second only to the US.
Local media has reported discrepancies between official state tallies of the dead and the number of bodies taken to crematoriums and burial grounds. Many crematoriums have spilled over into car parks and other empty spaces as blazing funeral pyres light up the night sky.
India’s daily deaths, which have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, also reflect a shattered and underfunded healthcare system. Hospitals are scrambling for more oxygen, beds, ventilators and ambulances, while families marshal their own resources in the absence of a functioning system.
“The ferocity of the second wave did take everyone by surprise,” Dr K VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, told the Indian Express, predicting that the current wave could peak in May.
“[Though] health experts had been warning us about the second wave, no indications from [antibody tests] suggested the scale of the surge that we are seeing,” he added, admitting that the country had slackened in its social distancing.
The US said on Wednesday that it was sending more than $100m (£72m) worth of supplies to India, starting with products including nearly 1m instant tests.
The White House said the first shipment would arrive in Delhi on Thursday in a military plane, days after President Joe Biden promised to step up assistance.
The first flight includes 960,000 rapid tests that can detect Covid in 15 minutes, and 100,000 N95 masks for frontline health workers, the US Agency for International Development said.
“Just as India sent assistance to the United States when our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,” a White House statement said.
The White House said it was also sending supplies to India to produce more than 20m vaccine doses.
The supplies are being diverted from US orders to produce the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not been approved for use in the US.
Agencies contributed to this report