Indian police are humiliating Covid rule-breakers with draconian physical punishments amid the huge surge in cases which has seen the country register a record 2,023 deaths in one day.
Officers were seen thrashing locals with sticks and forcing them to perform sit-ups and press-ups in the street in Chattarpur as authorities struggled to contain the deadly new variant which appears to be affecting younger people.
Hospitals in the capital of Delhi are repeatedly warning they are set to run out of oxygen within hours and had to appeal to central government for emergency supplies in the night as gravediggers continue to burn piles of bodies.
India has been in the grips of a second wave of infections blamed on lax government rules and the new ‘double mutant’ B.1.617 strain, adding almost 3.5million new cases this month alone.
Wednesday’s announcement of 295,041 cases and 2,023 deaths in the past 24 hours are both the highest figures recorded and on a par with numbers seen in the United States during its deadliest surge in January.
Divya Arya, a journalist based in Delhi, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘We are in a crisis mode, the numbers keep climbing every day.
Indian police are humiliating Covid rule-breakers with draconian physical punishments amid the huge surge in cases
Officers were seen thrashing locals with sticks and forcing them to perform sit-ups and press-ups in the street in Chattarpur
Relatives wearing PPE attend the funeral of a man who died from Covid disease at a crematorium in New Delhi
India has been in the grips of a second wave of infections blamed on lax government rules and the new ‘double mutant’ B.1.617 strain
India has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases daily, bringing pain, fear and agony to many lives as lockdowns have been implemented in Delhi and other cities around the country
Health workers rest in between cremating virus victims in Delhi amid the huge surge in infections and deaths
More than 200,000 cases per day were recorded on average in the last week, 20 times as many as two months ago
An average of 1,411 deaths was recorded over the past seven days in India, its highest rate throughout the pandemic
‘The death rate may be much lower compared to the overall infections but even people who are not dying who are in a less serious condition need a lot of support in terms of oxygen, ventilators and ICU beds and India seems to be struggling on all those fronts.
‘I’m here in the capital Delhi which is supposed to have the best health infrastructure, but even here we had appeals from the chief minister of Delhi for oxygen from the central government, appeals that were literally saying oxygen is going to run out in some big hospitals in just four or five hours.
‘In the middle of the night, oxygen supply was boosted by the central government from its own stocks but it seems even that will last only 24 hours so it seems to be a complete crisis mode.
‘Again this is Delhi, if I start talking about the smaller towns and smaller cities, it’s even more grave there.’
Medics in Delhi say that two thirds of their new patients are under-45, while in Mumbai, doctors say that they are seeing children aged 12 to 15, where there were virtually no child admissions in the first wave.
The Indian variant, which was first detected in October 2020, is believed to be more infectious than the first strain of Covid.
Scientists suspect two mutations, named E484Q and L452R, help the variant to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older strains.
Police force locals to perform squats and sit-ups as punishment for breaking Covid-19 guidelines
An elderly woman waits to receive a vaccine in Delhi where hospitals are running perilously low on oxygen
An officer beats a man who broke Covid restrictions in India during a crackdown in the huge second wave
It carries the same E484Q mutation as the South African variant, believed to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at preventing severe reactions to the virus.
However, Public Health England’s Sharon Peacock has said there is limited evidence for this.
The Indian variant is yet to be properly understood by scientists and has been classed as a ‘variant under investigation’, a tier below the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants, by the UK government.
Peacock also said the variant may not be the primary driver of the current wave of infections in India.
She said: ‘The question is whether this is associated with the variant, with human behaviour (for example, the presence of large gatherings, and/or lack of preventive measures including hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing) or whether both are contributing.’
But, as a result of the new wave of infections, the country’s healthcare infrastructure is being pushed to the limit across the land, including in the remote Himalayan region.
A woman is consoled after her husband was one of the latest Covid fatalities as the country saw record deaths and cases
A municipal worker in personal protective suit performs last rites during the cremation of a Covid victim in Vasai, on the outskirts of Mumbai
A man watches the cremation of his relative in New Delhi where a week-long lockdown has been implemented
One Gujarat hospital has set up the state’s first paediatric coronavirus ward.
‘We are also seeing children under the ages of 12 and 15 being admitted with symptoms in the second wave. Last year there were practically no children,’ said Khusrav Bajan, a consultant at Mumbai’s P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and a member of Maharashtra’s Covid-19 taskforce.
In Gujarat state, pulmonologist Amit Dave said young people were experiencing ‘increased severity’ from coronavirus for their lungs, hearts and kidneys.
In the southern IT hub of Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year.
It is believed the under-45s may also be more prone to a new ‘double mutant’ variant found in 60 percent of samples in Maharashtra, the hardest-hit state.
On Monday, the health ministry announced it will roll-out vaccines to over-18s from the start of next month, but it is unclear whether the country of 1.4 billion, which is the world’s biggest vaccine producer, has anywhere near the supplies it needs, raising concerns for supply chains to the rest of the world.
Burning pyres of patients who died of Covid-19 at a crematorium in Delhi over the weekend. The city of 29 million people has fewer than 100 beds with ventilators, and fewer than 150 beds available for patients needing critical care
Relatives wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) walk amid burning funeral pyres as they perform last rites for covid-19 victims in Bhopal
In an address to the nation on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the country of 1.3billion people was ‘once again fighting a big fight’.
‘The situation was under control till a few weeks back, and then this second corona wave came like a storm,’ he said.
There had been hopes that despite its packed cities and poor health care, India had managed to dodge largely unscathed a pandemic that has killed more than three million people around the world.
Recent weeks have seen mass gatherings including millions attending the Kumbh Mela religious festival, political rallies as well as lavish weddings and cricket matches against England.
Production of key coronavirus drugs slowed or even halted at some factories and there were delays inviting bids for oxygen generation plants, according to press reports.
Distraught relatives are now being forced to pay exorbitant rates on the black market for medicine and oxygen and WhatsApp groups are awash with desperate pleas for help.
Travel agents say that a standard £400 economy ticket from India to the UK has soared to £2,000 due to a shortage of seats on planes over the next three days
‘I am scared for my parents and relatives more than I am scared for myself because they are not young anymore and getting admitted into a hospital right now is next to impossible,’ one Delhi resident told AFP.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who on Tuesday went into self-isolation after his wife tested positive, tweeted late Tuesday that some hospitals in the capital ‘are left with just a few hours of oxygen’.
Hospitals in the western state of Maharashtra and its teeming capital Mumbai, the epicentre of the surge, were also experiencing dire shortages, press reports said.
‘Normally we would shift some patients to other hospitals… none in the city have spare oxygen,’ NDTV quoted one doctor in the state as saying.
‘The (central government), states and private sectors are trying to ensure every needy patient gets oxygen,’ Modi said in his address.
States across India have imposed restrictions, with Delhi in a week-long lockdown, all non-essential shops shut in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh set for a weekend shutdown.
Delhi’s lockdown prompted tens of thousands of migrant workers to flee the megacity, in scenes reminiscent of the national shutdown a year ago that inflicted economic and human misery.
The increased death toll has led to gravediggers burning scores of bodies, and the chimney of one electric furnace in Ahmedabad cracked and collapsed after being in constant use for up to 20 hours every day for the past two weeks.
States across India have imposed restrictions, with Delhi in a week-long lockdown, all non-essential shops shut in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh set for a weekend shutdown
India has administered more than 130million shots so far and from May 1 all adults will be eligible for a shot
The iron frames inside another in the industrial diamond hub of Surat melted because there was no time to let the furnaces cool.
‘Until last month we were cremating 20-odd bodies per day… But since the beginning of April we have been handling over 80 bodies every day,’ said a local official at the Ramnath Ghela Crematorium in the city.
With waiting times of up to eight hours, Rajkot has set up a dedicated 24/7 control room to manage the flow in the city’s four crematoria.
At two crematoria in Lucknow in the north, relatives are being given numbered tokens and made to wait for up to 12 hours. One has started burning bodies in an adjacent park.
Rohit Singh, whose father died from Covid-19, said crematorium officials were charging around 7,000 rupees (£67) – almost 20 times the normal rate.
Some crematoria in Lucknow ran out of wood and asked people to bring it themselves. Viral photos on social media showed electric rickshaws laden down with logs.
The US now advises against travelling to India, even for those fully vaccinated, while Britain has added India to its ‘red list’. Hong Kong and New Zealand have banned flights.
India has administered more than 130million shots so far and from May 1 all adults will be eligible for a vaccine.
Some local authorities have however been running short of supplies, and India has put the brakes on exports of the AstraZeneca shot.
‘I think in the coming week or two we will have a more quantitative estimate of and if any effect of this variant on the vaccine,’ Rakesh Mishra from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology told AFP.
In total India has recorded 15.6million cases, second only to the US, and more than 180,000 deaths, though it is behind many countries on a per capita basis.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE INDIA VARIANT?
Real name: B.1.617
When and where was it discovered? The variant was first reported as being of concern by the Indian government in late March.
The first cases in India appear to date back to October 2020 and it was first detected in Britain in February.
It has been detected in 21 countries as of April 19, according to Public Health England’s Sharon Peacock.
How many people in the UK have been infected with it? Matt Hancock revealed there had been 103 cases so far.
But Public Health England’s latest report, published on April 15, says 77. These were detected in England and Scotland.
What mutations does it have? It has 13 mutations that separate it from the original Covid virus that emerged in China – but the two main ones are named E484Q and L452R.
Scientists suspect these two alterations can help it to transmit faster and to get past immune cells made in response to older variants.
Is it more infectious and can it evade vaccines?
The L452R mutation is also found on the Californian variant (B.1.429), discovered in December, even though the two evolved independently.
L452R is believed to make the American strain about 20 per cent more infectious.
The Indian variant’s E484Q mutation is very similar to the one found in the South African and Brazil variants known as E484K, which can help the virus evade antibodies.
The South African variant is thought to make vaccines about 30 per cent less effective at stopping infections, but it’s not clear what effect it has on severe illness.
Professor Peacock said there was ‘limited’ evidence of E484Q’s effect on immunity and vaccines.
Lab studies have suggested it may be able to escape some antibodies, but to what degree remains uncertain.
Should we be worried?
Scientists are unsure how transmissible or vaccine-resistant the Indian variant is because the E484Q mutation is new and not well understood.
The fact it appears to have increased infectivity should not pose an immediate threat to the UK’s situation, because the current dominant Kent version appears equally or more transmissible.
It will take a variant far more infectious strain than that to knock it off the top spot.
However, if the Indian version proves to be effective at slipping past vaccine-gained immunity, then its prevalence could rise in Britain as the immunisation programme squashes the Kent variant.
The UK currently classes the Indian strain as a ‘Variant Under Investigation’, a tier below the Kent, South African and Brazilian variants.
Experts studying Britain’s Covid variants said the Indian variant was unlikely to ever take off in the UK because its mutations were ‘not top tier’.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said it’s still not clear if India’s third wave has been caused by the new variant, or if it emerged at the same time by coincidence.
His comments have been echoed by PHE’s Professor Peacock, who said today: ”It is not clear at the present time whether B.1.617 is the main driver for the current wave.
‘The question is whether this is associated with the variant, with human behaviour (for example, the presence of large gatherings, and/or lack of preventive measures including hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing) or whether both are contributing.’
How deadly is it?
Again, scientists still don’t know for sure – but they are fairly certain it won’t be more deadly than the current variants in circulation in Britain.
This is because there is no evolutionary benefit to Covid becoming more deadly.
The virus’s sole goal is to spread as much as it can, so it needs people to be alive and interacting with others for as long as possible to achieve this.
And, if other variants are anything to go by, the Indian strain should not be more lethal.
There is still no evidence to show dominant versions like the Kent and South African variants are more deadly than the original Covid strain – even though they are highly transmissible.