Medical supplies flow into India as Covid-19 deaths near 200,000

A shipment from Britain, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators, arrived in the capital, New Delhi


Reuters April 27, 2021
Relatives wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) mourn a man, who died from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), at a crematorium in New Delhi, India April 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Vital medical supplies began to reach India on Tuesday as hospitals starved of life-saving oxygen and beds turned away coronavirus patients, and a surge in infections pushed the death toll close to 200,000.

A shipment from Britain, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators, arrived in the capital, New Delhi, though a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had no surplus Covid-19 vaccine doses to spare. 

France is sending eight large oxygen generating plants this week and Ireland, Germany and Australia are sending oxygen concentrators and ventilators, an Indian foreign ministry official said, underlining the crucial need of oxygen.

India's first "Oxygen Express" train pulled into New Delhi, laden with about 70 tonnes of oxygen from an eastern state, but the crisis has not abated in the city of 20 million at the epicentre of the latest wave of infections.

"The current wave is extremely dangerous and contagious and the hospitals are overloaded," said Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, adding that a large public area in the capital will be converted into a critical care hospital.

With frustration mounting, relatives of a recently deceased Covid-19 patient attacked staff with knives at a hospital in the southeast of New Delhi, injuring at least one person, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A video posted on social media showed several people brawling with guards at the same hospital. Delhi High Court has advised local authorities to provide security at hospitals.

The World Health Organization said it was working to deliver 4,000 oxygen concentrators to India, where mass gatherings, more contagious variants and low vaccination rates have sparked the outbreak. 

With vaccine demand outstripping supply in the world's second-most populous country, two US drugmakers have offered support.

Gilead Sciences (GILD.O) said on Monday it would give India at least 450,000 vials of its antiviral drug remdesivir, and Merck & Co (MRK.N) said on Tuesday it was partnering with five Indian generic drugmakers to expand production and access to its experimental COVID-19 drug molnupiravir. read more

India is also negotiating with the United States, which has said it will share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca's (AZN.L) Covid-19 vaccine with other countries. A senior official participating in the talks said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been assured of priority for India.

Mounting toll

India's 323,144 new cases over the past 24 hours stood below a worldwide peak of 352,991 hit on Monday, and 2,771 new deaths took the toll to 197,894.

But the fewer confirmed infections were largely due to a drop in testing, said health economist Rijo M John, of the Indian Institute of Management in the southern state of Kerala.

"This should not be taken as an indication of falling cases, rather a matter of missing out on too many positive cases," he said on Twitter.

Dr K. Preetham, an administrator at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, said patients were having to share oxygen cylinders because of the oxygen shortage.

Delhi is in lockdown, as are the southern state of Karnataka and the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai. 

A patchwork of curbs, complicated by local elections and mass gatherings such as the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, could drive breakouts elsewhere.

About 20,000 devout Hindus gathered by the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar on the last auspicious day of the festival for a bath they believe will wash away their sins.

"We believe Mother Ganga will protect us," said a woman on the riverbank, where people bathed with few signs of distancing measures.

India has turned to its armed forces for help with the pandemic. Even China, which is locked in a military standoff with India on their disputed Himalayan border, said it was trying to get medical supplies to its neighbour.

In some cities, bodies were being cremated in makeshift facilities in parks and parking lots, and television channels showed bodies crammed into an ambulance in the western city of Beed as transport ran short.

Supply uncertainty

India has converted hotels and railway coaches into critical care facilities to make up for the shortage of beds, but experts say the next crisis will be a lack of healthcare professionals.

Companies ranging from conglomerates such as Tata Group and Reliance Industries Ltd to Jindal Steel and Power have stepped forward to help supply medical oxygen.

The US Chamber of Commerce has said India's economy, the world's sixth largest, could falter because of the spike in cases, creating a drag for the global economy. 

Australia halted direct passenger flights from India until May 15, joining other nations taking steps to keep out more virulent variants. 

India, with a population of about 1.3 billion, has a tally of 17.64 million infections, but experts believe it runs much higher.

Supply uncertainty could force Maharashtra to postpone inoculations for people aged between 18 and 45, a government official said.

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