India continues to reel under its second coronavirus wave, with continuing shortages of oxygen, hospitals beds, medicines and ambulances, while its national inoculation programme has almost ground to a halt as vaccination supplies dry up.
The federal health ministry on Monday reported a record 366,161 new cases and 3,745 deaths, but experts and activists, who collated statistics from crematoriums and burial grounds, claimed that the real numbers were far higher.
Lack of testing in many states, especially India's most densely inhabited northern Uttar Pradesh, with a population of more than 204 million, means that many cases aren't being detected, activists claim.
Disturbing footage on several news channels showed some 100 bodies of suspected Covid victims floating in the Ganges river near Buxar in eastern Bihar district, which borders Uttar Pradesh.
The video aired by the Times Now network, which actively supports prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration, appears to show government-run Kathiar hospital staff taking the bodies out of an ambulance and dumping them in the river.
Local authorities have ordered an investigation into the incident after the video went viral on Monday.
Meanwhile, as calls for a nationwide lockdown grow, India’s supreme court has instituted a 12-member national task force to “facilitate a public health response to the pandemic based on scientific and specialised domain knowledge”.
The task force, comprising leading doctors and experts, must oversee the countrywide distribution of oxygen for tens of thousands of virus-infected patients in hospitals and medical facilities across the country, almost all of which are short of supplies.
Over the past fortnight at least 180 virus patients have died in hospitals in New Delhi and in other small towns in northern and southern India due to a shortage of oxygen, cylinders of which were being sold on the black market at exorbitant rates. Several state governments have blamed the federal government for rationing oxygen supplies.
Hospitals and medical staff across the India continue to be overstretched. Several overcrowded hospitals in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and other towns have hired “bouncers’ to prevent doctors and other medical staff from being beaten up by aggravated relatives of patients who failed to gain hospital admission.
India’s vaccination programme, which began in February, has also fallen apart. Mirroring the tussle between the federal and state governments over oxygen, a severe vaccine shortage had emerged, forcing the inoculation programme to stall with less than two per cent of India’s population of 1.3 billion having so far received both doses.
In the meantime Dr K V Vijay Raghavan, India's principal scientific adviser, declared last week that a third coronavirus pandemic wave was "inevitable given the high levels of the circulating virus".
However, right now the BJP government appears to be caught up in perception management. Last week federal information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javdekar, a close Modi associate, presided over a 90-minute workshop for 300 senior civil servants instructing them on ways to "manage perceptions through effectively highlighting positive stories and achievements".
Entitled “Effective Communication”, the training session aspired to show the BJP government as “sensitive, bold, quick, responsive and hardworking” in dealing with the pandemic crisis.
“The lived experience of Indian citizens – desperately pleading for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds or struggling to get vaccinated– is as much at variance with the official claims that the message won’t work,” declared yhe Hindustan Times.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington has estimated that India will see one million deaths from Covid-19 by August 1st. Senior Indian government officials dismissed the Lancet’s dire predictions as “motivated”.