18 million and counting, India’s virus catastrophe

India’s total coronavirus disease passed passed 18 million on Thursday as gravediggers worked around the clock burying victims and rows of funeral pyres were built in parks and parking lots, Reuters reports.

India reported 379,257 new patients and 3,645 more deaths on Thursday, according to health ministry data. It was the country’s highest number of deaths reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

The world’s second-most populous nation is in deep crisis with its hospitals and morgues overwhelmed and healthcare professionals struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Mumbai gravedigger Sayyed Munir Kamruddin said he and his colleagues were working non-stop to bury victims.

“I’m not scared of COVID, I’ve worked with courage. It’s all about courage, not about fear,” said the 52-year-old. “This is our only job. Getting the body, removing it from the ambulance, and then burying it.”

Each day, thousands of Indians frantically search for hospital beds and life saving oxygen for sick relatives, using social media apps and personal contacts. When hospital beds become available, especially in intensive care units, they are snapped up within minutes.

“The ferocity of the second wave did take everyone by surprise,” K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, was quoted as saying in the Indian Express newspaper.

“While we were all aware of second waves in other countries, we had vaccines at hand, and no indications from modeling exercises suggested the scale of the surge.”

India’s military has begun transporting key medical supplies, such as oxygen cannisters, across the country and will open its healthcare facilities to civilians. 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 deadly wave was to vaccinate its vast population, said experts, and on Wednesday the country opened registrations for everyone above the age of 18 to be given jabs from Saturday.

Although it is the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, India does not have the stocks for the estimated 800 million people now eligible for inoculation.

Many people who tried to sign up for the vaccinations said they failed, complaining on social media that they could not get a slot or they simply could not get online to register as the website repeatedly crashed.

“Statistics indicate that far from crashing or performing slowly, the system is performing without any glitches,” the government said in a statement late on Wednesday.

The government said more than 8 million people had registered for the vaccinations, but it was not immediately clear how many had got slots.

Only about 9 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population have received one dose since the vaccination campaign began in January with health workers and then the elderly.

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