India’s coronavirus case numbers climbed sharply again on Friday, prompting the army to open up its hospitals in a desperate bid to relieve the humanitarian crisis created by an acute shortage of beds, medicines and oxygen.
With 386,452 new cases and 3,498 deaths in the previous 24 hours, India is currently posting a world record infection rate of more than 370,000 cases and 3,600 deaths a day.
A huge international aid operation is under way with dozens of countries promising help.
On Friday a US military Super Galaxy transporter carrying more than 400 oxygen cylinders, nearly one million rapid coronavirus tests and other medical equipment landed at New Delhi's international airport.
India has now reported more than 18.7 million cases since the pandemic began, second only to the United States, and 208,330 deaths.
Daily deaths almost tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge.
According to a Reuters tally, the country added about 7.7 million cases since the end of February, when its second wave picked up steam, whereas the previous 7.7 million cases were added over nearly six months.
Medical experts believe actual Covid-19 numbers in the world's second-most populous nation may be five to 10 times greater than the official tally.
Battling to find hospital beds, distraught people are flooding social media and messaging apps with heartbreaking pleas for oxygen, medicines and room in intensive care units.
India’s army chief M M Naravane met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday to discuss the crisis.
Gen Naravane said patients could approach their nearest army hospitals for help. Troops are also assisting with imported oxygen tankers and vehicles where special skills are required, the government said.
In the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, a school teachers' organisation said that more than 550 members died after they were infected with Covid-19 while helping with local council elections last month, the Times of India newspaper reported.
Experts blame the surge on new, more contagious virus variants and mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events. On Thursday, millions voted in state elections in West Bengal with little adherence to physical distancing.
In the southern state of Karnataka, Revenue Minister R Ashoka said nearly 2,000 coronavirus patients under home care had switched off their phones and could not be traced. Police were trying to track them because they might be seeking hospital admission on their own, he said.
In central Madhya Pradesh state, three villages in Balaghat district pooled money to convert buildings into Covid-19 care centres. They bought oxygen concentrators and started admitting patients. Government doctors are visiting the facilities twice a day.
India plans to step up a faltering vaccination drive by allowing all adults 18 and older to get their jabs from Saturday. It has so far administered 150 million vaccine doses, according to the Health Ministry.
Since January, nearly 10 per cent of Indians have received one dose, but only about 1.5 per cent have received both, even though India is one of the world’s largest producers of vaccines.
All vaccination centres in India's financial capital of Mumbai were shut for three days, starting on Friday, owing to a shortage of doses, authorities said.
Health Minister Harash Vardhan expressed hope that the assistance being sent by more than 40 countries would plug the shortage in medical supplies.
The United States is sending more than $100 million worth of items, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders and 15 million N95 masks.
Japan said on Friday that it would send 300 ventilators and 300 oxygen concentrators in response to the Indian government's request. “Japan stands with India, our friend and partner,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Russia sent two aircraft carrying oxygen-generating equipment. The Indian air force also flew oxygen containers from Dubai, Singapore and Bangkok.
France, Germany, Ireland and Australia also promised help.