India reported over 17,000 new coronavirus cases over the last 24 hours, pushing the country’s total above 500,000, federal health ministry data showed yesterday, with infections surging in major cities including the capital New Delhi.
Authorities said a total of 15,685 people had died after another 385 fatalities were added to the toll in 24 hours.
India has the world’s fourth-biggest outbreak of the virus that causes Covid-19, below only the United States, Brazil and Russia in confirmed infections.
Infections are expected to continue rising steadily in India.
Experts advising the federal government say the authorities should now prioritise reducing mortality over containing the spread of the virus.
“Our focus should be on preventing deaths and not really getting bogged down because of the numbers. Numbers are going to increase,” said Dr Manoj Murhekar, a member of India’s main coronavirus task force and director of the National Institute of Epidemiology.
The COV-IND-19 study group, led by Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistics professor from the University of Michigan, forecasts that India could see between 770,000 and 925,000 cases by July 15.
As infections mount swiftly and hospitals become stretched, some cities like New Delhi are scrambling to build temporary facilities with thousands of beds to quarantine and treat Covid-19 patients.
The city of around 20mn people only has around 13,200 beds for Covid-19 patients and will add at least 20,000 in coming weeks, with some facilities manned by army and paramilitary doctors.
The virus has particularly hit India’s densely populated cities and there are now major concerns for New Delhi which has overtaken Mumbai with nearly 80,000 cases.
The city’s government has predicted it will have 500,000 infections by the end of July.
In a bid to boost tracing efforts, Delhi authorities have called in 33,000 health workers to screen about 2mn people in sealed off zones across the city.
But cities across the nation are braced for a huge wave of new cases in coming weeks.
“It is likely that we’re going into a state, unless we are able to reinforce a strict physical distancing mechanism or a hard lockdown, where the rate of infection will continue to increase,” said Anant Bhan, a leading public health expert.
“Unlike China, where the pandemic was relatively more concentrated around Wuhan and a few other cities, India has a more diffused spread that makes it a bit more challenging for the healthcare system,” he said.
Bhan said India might see several peaks in coming months because the spread of the virus “is variable across the country”.
Staff shortages are likely to be a concern as hospitals are swamped and more temporary facilities open, experts warn, although health authorities in some cities are pushing for improved risk-based categorisation of patients.
“We have to ensure those who really require treatment aren’t denied services,” said Dr Giridhar R Babu, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India who is advising the southern state of Karnataka.
Meanwhile, two officials in Andhra Pradesh were suspended yesterday after images of an earth mover being used to transport the body of a Covid-19 patient to a crematorium sparked outrage across the country.
The body of the 70-year-old man, who died of Covid-19 in the town of Palasa, was seen on footage aired by local television channels being taken to the crematorium on an earth mover.
The body was wrapped in plastic and put in the excavator’s bucket.
Officials clad in personal protective equipment accompanied the body.
The man had died at his home.
When neighbours complained that the body posed a risk to others, his family members approached civic authorities, who took the step of using the earth mover, Srikakulam district collector J Nivas said.
Two local officials have been suspended for not following protocols for disposal of the body, Nivas added.
NDTV news channel quoted Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Reddy’s office as saying the handling of the body was “inhuman.”
As the number of Covid-19 deaths rise in India, there have been several reports of bodies being improperly treated.
The Supreme Court this month issued a notice to the federal government as well as several state governments, citing media reports that bodies had been found in garbage bins and were dragged by ropes, according to legal reporting website Bar and Bench.
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