India’s Covid-19 second wave prompts queues of ambulances and full crematoriums

The South Asian nation recently surpassed Brazil to become the second most affected country after the US

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Scenes of bodies piling up at morgues and dozens of desperate patients waiting in ambulances for treatment are the defining images of India's second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, but officials say worse is yet to come.

In February, new daily cases of the disease had dropped below 9,000 and towns and cities in the world's second most populous nation were buzzing with life before the resurgence of the virus at the beginning of April.

On Tuesday, India reported more than 185,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths, days after it again surpassed Brazil to become the second most affected country after the US, with more than 13.8 million cases and 172,000 deaths.

India has more than 1.3 million active cases, with tens of thousands undergoing treatment in hospitals.

Raipur in eastern Chhattisgarh state is now averaging 10,000 cases and more than 100 deaths a day compared with 1,500 cases a day during the peak of the first wave.

The city's biggest government-run Bhim Rao Ambedkar Memorial Hospital has 90 per cent occupancy of Covid beds while it is reporting at least 20 deaths a day related to the viral infection.

The hospital's mortuary is out of space, forcing authorities to leave bodies wherever they could find space.

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I fear that things are going to get worse in the coming weeks

Videos on television news stations and social media showed bodies wrapped in white plastic bags scattered across corridors and in empty rooms. Authorities blamed long waits at crematoriums.

"We are witnessing about 20 deaths per day … a month ago, it was about 20 deaths a month. There is a limitation of space," Dr Vinit Jain, superintendent of the hospital, told The National.

Some family members are not picking up the bodies for funerals for fear of contracting the infection, he said.

"We have at present about 40-50 bodies waiting for disposal," Dr Jain said.

In Ahmedabad, the capital of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, more than 100 ambulances with Covid-19 patients were lined up outside a hospital overnight on Tuesday after the 2,100-bed centre ran out of space, forcing staff to treat them in the parked vehicles.

The situation is exceptionally grim in neighbouring Maharashtra, the state that alone accounts for 48 per cent of the active caseload in India, with more than 550,000 cases.

Intensive care units and oxygen-equipped beds in the state’s hospitals have been at almost 100 per cent occupancy for the past week.

The crematoriums are running out of space because of the alarming rise in Covid-19 deaths, and bodies are cremated on a single pyre to cope with the surging number of deaths.

At a government-run hospital in the state's Osmanabad district, visuals recorded on mobile phones by families of Covid-19 patients showed them slouched in wheelchairs receiving oxygen and drugs in corridors after the hospital ran out of beds.

State cief minister Uddhav Thackeray appealed to Mr Modi to use Indian Air Force planes to transport oxygen to the state after shortages were reported at several hospitals.

The state imposed a 15-day lockdown, including in Mumbai, from Tuesday at midnight.

In New Delhi, 14 private hospitals and six government hospitals were converted into Covid-19 care centres as the city reported more than 13,500 cases a day.

Despite states taking action, the national government hinted that it will not impose a nationwide lockdown to avoid damaging the economy, which has picked up in recent months after weeks of curfew in March 2020.

In past weeks, huge crowds at election rallies and religious festivals caused concern for experts, who said things could get out of hand in the coming days in the absence of drastic measures to control the infection rates.

“I fear that things are going to get worse in the coming weeks,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, a virologist and the director of Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University.

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