NEW DELHI: Hopes that India’s rampaging second wave of Covid-19 is peaking were set back on Thursday after record daily infections and deaths were reported and as the virus spread from cities to villages that were poorly equipped to cope.

Government models had forecast a peak by Wednesday in infections that have overwhelmed the healthcare system, with hospitals running out of beds and medical oxygen.

A record 412,262 new cases and 3,980 deaths were reported over the 24 hours since late Wednesday night, taking total infections past 21 million and the overall death toll to 230,168.

“This temporarily halts speculations of a peak,” Rijo John, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in the southern state of Kerala, said on Twitter.

While New Delhi and several other cities have been hardest hit so far, limited public healthcare, including a dearth of testing facilities, means the threat is grave in rural areas that are home to nearly 70 percent of the 1.3 billion population.

In the town of Susner, Madhya Pradesh state, patients were being treated outdoors under trees, on blankets on the ground.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government welcomed US President Joe Biden’s announcement that he would support waiving intellectual property rights for vaccinations.

Such a waiver would make vaccines more widely available, although it could take months for the World Trade Organisation to hammer out any deal. While India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker, it is struggling to produce enough doses. Its two current vaccine producers will take two months or more to boost monthly output to more than 110 million doses from 70 million-80 million.

At a meeting with his top officials on Thursday, Modi stressed that Indian states must keep up vaccination rates and that healthcare workers involved in the inoculation campaign must not be diverted to other tasks, the government said.

Although the country has administered 157 million vaccine doses, its rate of inoculation has fallen sharply in recent days.

No national lockdown

Modi has been widely criticised for not acting sooner to suppress the second wave, after religious festivals and political rallies drew tens of thousands of people in recent weeks and became “super spreader” events.

Several Indian states have imposed various levels of social restrictions to try to stem infections, but the federal government has resisted imposing a national lockdown. The southern state of Kerala announced on Thursday it would impose nine days of curbs on movement from Saturday.

In the office of a crematorium in Delhi, the floor and shelves were overflowing with earthen pots, plastic packets and steel containers filled with the ashes of people who have died.

Practising Hindus collect the ashes of the dead a few days after the funeral for immersion in a river or sea, one of the rituals that they believe lead to salvation of the soul.

“Our lockers are full. We cannot store any more ashes. We used to get around 40 Covid-19 bodies a day. We are now telling relatives to take the ashes with them on the same day,” Pankaj Sharma, a manager at the crematorium, said.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2021

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