NEW DELHI – Dozens of bodies washed up on the banks of the Ganges this week, most likely the remains of people who have died of Covid-19.
States in southern India have threatened to stop sharing medical oxygen and they have great protection from holding onto what they have as their hospitals soar with the sick and infections.
And at a hospital in Andhra Pradesh, a rural state in southeastern India, angry relatives raged in the intensive care unit after suddenly running out of life-saving oxygen – the latest example of the same tragedy repeated when patients died while gasping for breath.
The desperation that has engulfed New Delhi, India’s capital city, in recent weeks is now spreading across the country, hitting states and rural areas with far fewer resources. Positivity rates are rising in these states, and public health experts say the rising numbers are most likely well below the real picture in places where diseases and deaths caused by Covid-19 are harder to track.
It seems that the crisis is entering a new phase. Cases in New Delhi and Mumbai could flatten. But many other places are being overwhelmed by runaway outbreaks. The World Health Organization is now saying that a new variant of the virus discovered in India, B.1.167, may be particularly transmissible, which only increases the feeling of alarm.
Every day the Indian media delivers a huge dose of turmoil and sadness. On Tuesday, televised images of distraught relatives beating angrily on the chests of loved ones who died after the oxygen was depleted, and headlines such as “Bodies of Suspicious Covid-19 Victims Found Floating” and “As Deaths Go Up.” 10 Fold, Worrying “characters from smaller states. “
This has always been the burning question: if New Delhi, home to the country’s elite and numerous hospitals, couldn’t handle the surge in coronavirus cases due to a devastating new wave, what would happen in poorer rural areas?
The answer is coming in now.
On Monday evening, Sri Venkateswara Ramnarain Ruia’s government general hospital in Andhra Pradesh ran out of medical oxygen. More than 60 patients were in critical condition and had oxygen masks on their faces. Doctors desperately called to suppliers for help.
But the oxygen ran out and killed 11 people. Distraught family members got so angry, hospital officials said, that they stormed into the intensive care unit, turned tables and smashed equipment. Television images showed women clutching their heads, overwhelmed with grief. Doctors and nurses fled until police officers arrived.
India is suffering from a worrying shortage of medical oxygen and at least 20 other hospitals have run out. Almost 200 patients have died from it, according to an Indian news site that has been following the string of fatal incidents.
At the same time, the national vaccination campaign stutters. The roughly two million doses administered daily for the past few days are lower than the highs a few weeks ago, when the country dispensed more than three million doses on a few days. Lots of people can’t find dates to get the shot. Some vaccination centers are completely exhausted, officials say.
All of this adds up to the harshest criticism that Narendra Modi, India’s powerful prime minister, has faced since he took office seven years ago. He has been widely accused of declaring premature victory over coronavirus and encouraging his country to drop his guard.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party remains by far India’s most powerful political organization. But the solid wall that the party has maintained during this crisis may show some cracks.
Several party setters in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and one controlled by Mr. Modi’s party, have started complaining about the state government’s response.
“There is no break in the corona and we helplessly watch our own people die,” wrote Lokendra Pratap Singh, a lawmaker for Mr. Modi’s party, in a letter that quickly went viral.
Nationwide, the picture remains bleak, although the situation in India’s two largest cities appears to be improving.
The capital New Delhi reported 12,481 new infections on Tuesday, less than half of the infections reported on April 30. And the positivity rate among those tested for the coronavirus has steadily declined in the city, from a worrying high to 19 percent from 36 percent a few weeks ago.
Something similar happened in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, and people are now wondering if the worst is over. The positivity rate in Mumbai has dropped from around 25 percent to around 7 percent.
Hospitals in Delhi that closed their doors last month due to a shortage of life-saving supplies and killed people on the streets are again accepting patients. But the situation for those who get sick is still extremely precarious. On Tuesday afternoon, a cell phone app for New Delhi, a metropolis of 20 million people, showed only 62 free beds in the intensive care unit for Covid-19 patients across the city.
Understand India’s Covid Crisis
Some of the worst hit states are now in the south, particularly Karnataka, home of India’s Bangalore technology center. An oxygen express train, part of the Modi government’s effort to carry liquid oxygen to Covid-19 hotspots, chugged into Bangalore Tuesday morning.
But the state needs more.
By this week, the southern states had agreed to share the oxygen supply. Now some are arguing to end the collaboration. Neighboring Kerala says it cannot send oxygen because it needs all of its supplies for its own growing needs. Tamil Nadu, also in the south, says the same thing and cannot provide for its poorer neighbor Andhra Pradesh, where the eleven people died on Monday evening at the oxygen limit.
“I can hardly imagine what’s going on in rural India,” said Rijo M. John, a health economist in Kerala, where the positivity rate rose from around 8 percent in early April to nearly 27 percent on Tuesday.
Mr John said that rural areas do not have many Covid tests and that many people “may die from not receiving treatment at all”.
One particularly troubling omen came in a river village in Bihar, a rural state in northern India. In the village of Chausa, residents felt deeply uncomfortable after discovering dozens of bodies mysteriously washed up on the banks of the Ganges.
Nobody knows who these people were or how their bodies got there. The villagers found her on Monday evening. Stunned spectators crowded around the remains, many in brightly colored clothes, floating in the shallow water. Images of the bloated bodies have made the rounds in the Indian media and unsettled countless people.
Officials said about 30 bodies were found. Witnesses put the number at over 100.
Every now and then, the villagers said, they see a single corpse floating in the river. It is part of a custom whereby some families send the corpses of loved ones into the Ganges, the holiest river in Hinduism weighed down with stones. But Chausa officials and residents suspect the unprecedented number of bodies they found this week belonged to victims of Covid-19.
“I’ve never seen so many bodies before,” said Arun Kumar Srivastava, a government doctor in Chausa.
When Covid-19 devastated this area, Dr. Srivastava, he saw more and more people carrying corpses, sometimes on their shoulders. “Absolutely,” he said. “More deaths happen.”
Krishna Dutt Mishra, an ambulance driver in Chausa, said many poor people dumped bodies in the river because the price of cremations has increased from rupees 2,000, about $ 27, to rupees 15,000 since the second wave of Covid. about $ 200, which is an insurmountable sum for most families.
This has become a problem across India. Covid-19 deaths have overwhelmed the grounds for cremation, and some unscrupulous cremation workers are now charging five or even ten times the normal price of the final rites.
“I drove the entire distance from Buxar to Chausa,” said Mishra, referring to another town a little further east. “I’ve never seen a few bodies, let alone so many, lined up along this stretch of the river.”
Hari Kumar and Shalini Venugopal Bhagat contributed to the coverage.