UK and US lead global effort to help India as coronavirus infections surge

26 April 2021, 09:08 | Updated: 27 April 2021, 07:44

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Express trains carrying oxygen tankers are being rushed across India as hospitals face supply shortages amid a surge in coronavirus infections and close to 2,800 deaths per day in the country.

A tweet from the Indian government's East Coast Railway on Monday morning shows three oxygen tankers from Hapa, Gujarat reaching Kalamboli, Maharashtra..

The project has been dubbed ‘Indian Express’, and comes as health officials scramble to stock up on oxygen and expand critical care units as the country struggles to cope with a record surge in covid cases.

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Families are being left to ferry Covid-19 patients from hospital to hospital in search of treatment, with people dying in queues, and sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.

The country's government has asked manufacturers to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs as supplies dwindle, while medical equipment is being sold on the black market at exponential prices.

Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, director of public health for Lancashire, whose entire family live in India, told LBC News: "It is a very dynamic, escalating and quite honestly heartbreaking situation in India. Family there, friends are working on the front line, just hoping that the health care system will be able to cope.

"It’s time for the entire international community to do what we can do to help India, but also people are just waiting for the situation to get a bit worse there, and then to get better."

The UK has begun sending ventilators and life-saving pieces of equipment after Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted on Friday: "We stand side by side with India as a friend and partner."

Later on Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed the first UK medical supplies had arrived in India.

He wrote on Twitter: "Good to see the first of our medical supplies have now arrived in India and will be deployed where they are needed most.

"No one is safe until we are all safe. International collaboration is key to fighting this global threat."

The US has sent five tonnes of oxygen concentrators and lifted a ban on exporting raw materials for vaccines.

On Sunday, for the fourth straight day, India set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by a new variant.

The 349,691 new infections brought India's total to more than 16.9 million, behind only the US.

The health ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, with the total now standing at 192,311. 

The surge has undermined the government's premature claims of victory over the pandemic.

The death toll could also be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many Covid-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.

Footage on television and posted on social media shows desperate relatives pleading for oxygen outside hospitals or weeping in the street for loved ones who died while waiting for treatment.

A relative of a person who died of Covid-19 is consoled by another during cremation in Jammu
A relative of a person who died of Covid-19 is consoled by another during cremation in Jammu. Picture: PA

One woman's younger brother, aged 50, was turned away by two hospitals and died waiting to be seen at a third.

She blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government for the crisis.

"He has lit funeral pyres in every house," she told The Caravan magazine.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that "nobody in the country was left without oxygen", in a statement made on Saturday by India's solicitor general Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister had declared victory over Covid-19 in January, and which boasted of being the "world's pharmacy", a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

Health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable - and it failed.

A man wearing PPE walks through burning pyres of people who have died from Covid-19
A man wearing PPE walks through burning pyres of people who have died from Covid-19. Picture: PA

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space, and funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly-hit cities.

In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50, and there are still hours-long waits.

At the city's Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8 million put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.

"The virus is swallowing our city's people like a monster," Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site, said.

The crematorium has been forced to skip individual ceremonies and rituals that Hindus believe release the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

"We are just burning bodies as they arrive," Mr Sharma added. "It is as if we are in the middle of a war."

Mr Modi is facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies which experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections.

At one such rally on April 17, Mr Modi expressed his delight at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly surge was inevitable with India already counting 250,000 new daily cases.