India’s health system has been placed under extreme pressure by a surge in coronavirus cases that has placed the country sixth in the world for the number of infections.
With some 10,000 people testing positive for the virus in 24 hours, the country’s total number of confirmed coronavirus cases had risen to 257, 000 on Monday. Of these, 7,200 people had died and about 124,000 had recovered.
The sharp rise in cases has placed huge strain on the country's fragile health system, especially in western Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital; southern Tamil Nadu state; and New Delhi, all of which were reeling under the wave of new virus cases.
Social media accounts documented scores of virus-infected patients and others with varied medical emergencies being turned away from hospitals in Mumbai and Delhi, where even testing kits were not available.
Last Friday a 30-year-old woman from a Delhi suburb in her eighth month of pregnancy died in an ambulance after eight hospitals refused her, citing her coronavirus symptoms or lack of space as excuses for not admitting her.
The woman and her family were on the road for 13 hours, braving police blockades and trying desperately to get some medical help, before she died.
Medical activists and community leaders said the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25th by prime minister Narendra Modi at four hours' notice, to give the federal and state authorities time to ramp up medical facilities, had failed miserably.
They said the world’s largest lockdown, of 1.3 billion people, had merely inflicted extreme misery on tens of millions of indigent and starving migrant labourers and brought the country’s economy to a halt.
"Had the migrant persons been allowed to go home at the beginning of the epidemic, when the disease spread was very low, the current situation could have been avoided," the Indian Public Health Association, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine and the Indian Association of Epidemiologists said in a joint statement last week.
The returning migrants were now taking infection to each and every corner of the country, mostly to rural and semi-urban areas, in districts with relatively weak public health systems, they added.
Officials on Monday said Delhi alone had registered more than 10 per cent of the country’s overall virus cases over the weekend, resulting in city officials ordering scarce hospital beds to be reserved exclusively for locals.
"If we open Delhi hospitals for patients from all over, where will Delhi residents go when they get affected with coronavirus?" Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Monday.
He subsequently went into self-quarantine after complaining of a sore throat and fever and is expected to undergo a coronavirus test on Tuesday.
Delhi was in big trouble, Mr Kejriwal added, on a day when the city and numerous other Indian states eased the lockdown despite heightened fears of a spike in virus cases.
Of Delhi's 60-odd private and government-run hospitals that cater to nearly 20 million people, 11 said they had no beds available; this situation was duplicated in Mumbai and Tamil Nadu's capital, Chennai.
There were also numerous media accounts of hospitals and other nursing homes in these cities demanding large sums of money from infected patients before admitting them.
Meanwhile, as local governments across the country permitted malls, restaurants and places of worship to reopen, health experts warned of an exponential increase in coronavirus cases over the next few weeks.