India's Covid death toll passes 200,000
A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside amid Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in the Indian city of Ghaziabad.–AFP
A total of 201,187 people have now died, 3,293 of them in the past day, according to health ministry data, although many experts suspect that the true toll is higher.
India has now reported 18 million infections, an increase of 360,000 in 24 hours, which is a new world record. This month alone the country has added almost six million new cases.
The crisis is particularly severe in New Delhi, with people dying outside packed hospitals where three people are often forced to share beds. Clinics have been running out of oxygen.
India has so far administered 150 million vaccine shots and from Saturday the programme will be expanded to include all adults, meaning 600 million more people will be eligible.
However, many states are warning that they have insufficient vaccine stocks and experts are calling on the government to prioritise vulnerable groups and badly hit areas.
The UN health agency said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19 first found in India had as of Tuesday been detected in over 1,200 sequences uploaded to the GISAID open-access database "from at least 17 countries".
The WHO recently listed B.1.617 -- which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics -- as a "variant of interest".
But so far it has stopped short of declaring it a "variant of concern".
That label would indicate that it is more dangerous that the original version of the virus by for instance being more transmissible, deadly or able to dodge vaccine protections.
The explosion in infections in India -- 350,000 new cases were recorded there on Tuesday alone -- has driven a surge in global cases to 147.7 million.
The virus has now killed more than 3.1 million people worldwide.
The WHO acknowledged that its preliminary modelling based on sequences submitted to GISAID indicates "that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other circulating variants in India, suggesting potential increased transmissibility".
It stressed that other variants circulating at the same time were also showing increased transmissibility, and that the combination "may be playing a role in the current resurgence in this country."
"Indeed, studies have highlighted that the spread of the second wave has been much faster than the first," the WHO said.
It highlighted though that "other drivers" could be contributing to the surge, including lax adherence to public health measures as well as mass gatherings.
"Further investigation is needed to understand the relative contribution of these factors," it said.
The UN agency also stressed that "further robust studies" into the characteristics of B.1.617 and other variants, including impacts on transmissibility, severity and the risk of reinfection, were "urgently needed".
Makeshift tent for lifesaving oxygen
Himanshu Verma sighed in relief as a mask was fitted over his mother's face, allowing the Covid-19 sufferer to breathe in oxygen as she sat alongside a busy road on the outskirts of New Delhi.
As record infections spark severe shortages of the gas in hospitals, desperate patients are flocking to a tent outside a gurdwara -- a Sikh place of worship -- in Ghaziabad city, arriving in cars, rickshaws and even ambulances.
"We needed treatment but we couldn't find any beds in Delhi's hospitals," Verma, 32, told AFP as his mother, 58-year-old Poonam, was connected to an oxygen concentrator.
"We will stay here all night if we have to. We don't have any other options."
Around him, people stricken with the infectious disease gasped for breath as they lay on benches and in the back of rickshaws.
Anxious family members fanned them with pieces of cardboard as temperatures soared to a sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
"We are getting more cases day by day," said 28-year-old Ishant Bindra, a volunteer with Khalsa Help International, an NGO set up by the gurdwara.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that about one in five people with Covid-19 suffer from respiratory distress and need oxygen therapy.
India has recorded 2.3 million fresh infections in the past week. In Delhi, the worst-hit city, around 20,000 to 25,000 cases are added every day.
Patients have died outside hospitals, gasping for air, as they wait to be admitted.
Some families said on social media that they were asked by hospitals to source their own cylinders.
- Severe crunch -
Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with frantic appeals for places to buy tanks and refills, often alongside readings of dangerously low oxygen levels in the blood.
Priyanka Mandal, 30, said she wasn't able to get her 55-year-old mother Pushpa, who suffers from diabetes, admitted to a hospital after her condition deteriorated.
She eventually found someone willing to sell her a cylinder and six kilogrammes (13.2 pounds) of oxygen for 30,000 rupees (US$400) -- far higher than usual market prices.
"She's been having constant fever and now she's not able to breathe," Mandal told AFP, adding that their oxygen supply was running out.
The gurdwara has also struggled to refresh its stock, a reflection of the severe crunch gripping Delhi even as medical supplies arrive in India from international donors.
Volunteers fan out to other cities up to several hours' drive away, looking for places willing to fill the cylinders.
The site had several tanks on Monday, volunteer Supreet Singh told AFP.
Wearing full protective gear, volunteers cleaned pressure gauges and pipes as they waited for the full cylinders of the life-saving gas to arrive.
"No matter how much time it takes, I have to wait here," Mandal said.
"I only have my mum, I don't even have my dad now... as I lost him in a road accident. So I have to help her survive."