Hospitals and crematoriums in India’s capital are struggling to cope as the country crossed the nine million mark.
New Delhi has seen infections surge, as well as limited capacity both at the main crematorium and in intensive care units across the city.
Although the pace of recorded new cases nationwide appears to be slowing, experts have cautioned that official figures may offer false hope since many infections may go undetected.
However, in New Delhi the disease is on the rise, with an average of 6,700 new cases a day over recent weeks. Health officials found this week that the prevalence of infections in markets was much higher than expected.
Despite that, markets are still full there and in other major cities. Fatigue with mask-wearing and social distancing measures set in during the recent festival season, including celebrations for the Diwali holiday.
Experts worry that get-togethers for the festival of light will yield another surge in cases in the coming weeks.
Shiv Kumar Sarin, director of New Delhi’s Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, said: “The next four weeks are crucial. The road is very bumpy.”
In the capital, the health system is under tremendous strain. 90% of intensive care beds with ventilators and 86% of intensive care beds without them were full as of Thursday, according to government figures.
Akshay Budhraja, a pulmonologist at private hospital Aakash Healthcare in New Delhi, said all the intensive care beds there were full and that many patients were waiting outside the hospital.
In a particularly worrying sign, he said young people were increasingly coming in with severe infections.
Dr Budhraja expressed frustration with the lack of understanding about the severity of the disease and the measures needed to slow its spread — not just in markets but even within the hospital.
He said asymptomatic family members of patients who are likely infected with Covid-19 were roaming around the hospital, adding: “They don’t understand.”
However, Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of New Delhi, said the health system would manage to keep up with the demand.
He said New Delhi is hoping to add 1,400 more critical care beds and that all private hospitals have been asked to reserve 80% of their critical care beds and over 60% of their other beds for virus patients.
“Our doctors, medical superintendents, medical directors and the entire medical fraternity made such tremendous arrangements to manage Covid-19 that Delhi is not witnessing a crisis,” he said.
But at the city’s main crematorium, nearly all the pyres burn simultaneously. Families would usually come in huge groups to chant prayers and carry the body to the pyre. Now, each funeral is small and loved ones in hazmat suits hurry through the process.
The government is considering increasing restrictions in markets. But, so far, officials have held off because they are wary of inflicting any more damage to the economy. In the meantime, the fine for not wearing a mask was increased fourfold to 2,000 rupees (£20) — a massive sum for the millions of Indians who live on less than £1.50 per day.
In Gujarat, prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state, authorities announced a weekend curfew in the city of Ahmedabad to curb infections.
India is third in the world for reported deaths after the United States and Brazil. It is second in terms of recorded infections though there are some signs the pace of new cases is slowing.
It took India 12 days to go from five million cases to six million but 22 days to go from eight million to nine million.
Experts warn that the official numbers, as elsewhere, are significant undercounts. India is not classifying many deaths as being from the virus and, increasingly, people aren’t getting tested.
Some experts also worry that the increased use of rapid tests, which are less accurate, is resulting in a high number of cases being missed.
Mobile testing vans are also going through vulnerable neighbourhoods in New Delhi — but some hoped for more.
Ajay Kumar Jha, whose brother is being treated for Covid-19, said “They should do this (testing) by going door-to-door. This will help because many people fear going and getting tested.”