India’s new coronavirus infections have reached a record of 184,372 in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, as most of the South Asian nation battles a second and more vicious surge in cases.
The nationwide tally of infections is 13.9 million, with the data on Wednesday showing deaths rose by 1,027, bringing the death toll to 172,085.
From reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world’s worst-hit country since April 2 by new daily cases.
The country is currently reporting around double the daily cases of the United States and Brazil, the two other worst affected countries, though its daily death toll is lower.
India’s total infections rank after only the US, having overtaken Brazil on Monday.
Hindu festival continues
Still, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus gathered to bathe in the Ganges river on Wednesday, the third key day of the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival.
Sanjay Gunjyal, the inspector general of police at the festival, said around 650,000 people had bathed on Wednesday morning.
“People are being fined for not following social distancing in non crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded,” he said.
There was little evidence of social distancing or mask-wearing, according to a Reuters news agency’s witness.
More than a thousand cases have been reported in Haridwar district in the last two days, according to government data.
Similar concerns of a spike in cases were sparked by mass election rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party and opposition groups during polls in four states and one federally run region.
At one rally in the eastern state of West Bengal, a key political prize, Home Minister Amit Shah posted Twitter pictures of meetings with crowds of supporters while unmasked.
The jump in India’s infections, for which Health Minister Harsh Vardhan acknowledged widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction, has prompted calls for the government to cancel huge public events.
Restrictions in Maharashtra
With the situation continuing to deteriorate, many states have announced restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.
India’s richest state Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital Mumbai and the epicentre of the national second wave, accounts for about a quarter of the country’s cases.
The state imposed stringent restrictions from Wednesday to try to contain the spread of the disease after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ordered most establishments and public places closed in the state for 15 days except those deemed essential, including grocery shops, hospitals, banks and stock exchanges.
“All factories/industries” barring some export-oriented units and those making items needed for essential services “must stop their operations”, a government notification said.
The restrictions will jolt businesses in Maharashtra but also risk having a broader effect on the Indian economy. The state accounts for nearly 15 percent of India’s gross domestic product, making it crucial for the country’s economic recovery after months of slowdown.
Elsewhere, overstretched private hospitals are turning patients away, placing an increasing burden on government facilities.
In the western state of Gujurat, local media showed a long queue of ambulances waiting outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, with some patients being treated there while they waited.
A hospital source, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, said this was because a lot of private hospitals were short of oxygen and were sending their patients to the public hospital.
In Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state known for its large tribal population, the main government hospital’s morgue was struggling to keep up, said joint director Dr Vineet Jain.
“All oxygenated and ICU beds are full in our set-up,” he told Reuters on Tuesday.
“Around 50 dead bodies are laying, we have a shortage of space. Some private hospitals do not have space to keep the dead bodies so they also send the bodies to us.”
Foreign vaccines fast-tracked
India on Tuesday said it will fast-track emergency approvals for COVID-19 vaccines authorised by Western countries and Japan, paving the way for possible imports of Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna shots.
The move will exempt companies from carrying out local safety trials for their vaccines.
India is currently using the AstraZeneca shot and a homegrown vaccine for its own immunisation drive, and this week approved Russia’s Sputnik V shot for emergency use.
The health ministry on Tuesday said vaccines authorised by the World Health Organization or authorities in the US, Europe, Britain and Japan could be granted emergency use approval in India.
Pfizer said it would work towards bringing its vaccine to India after withdrawing its application in February.
US federal health agencies on Tuesday recommended pausing use of the J&J shot after six women under age 50 developed rare blood clots after receiving it.
India, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, has administered more than 108 million vaccine doses, sold more than 54.6 million doses abroad and gifted more than 10 million to partner countries.
Dozens of poor countries have relied on Indian exports to run their inoculation drives.