India has evacuated more than 1.6 million people from the east coast to safer places as a powerful cyclone hit the nation at a time when authorities are also battling the world's worst outbreak of Covid-19.
The eastern state of West Bengal has shifted about 1.1 million people to various relief centres, while neighbouring Odisha has so far moved more than 500,000. Local authorities are asking people to maintain social distancing at cyclone shelters to check the spread of the coronavirus.
The storm, the second one to batter India in 10 days, poses several challenges for already-stressed authorities in the country. Covid-19 infections have strained India’s health system and overwhelmed crematoriums and hospitals. They have also spread to rural areas, where about 70 per cent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people live.
The India Meteorological Department said the landfall process of cyclone Yaas has started in Odisha and wind speeds may rise as high as 155km/h. Sea levels may increase three metres above regular tides and inundate low-lying areas, it said in a statement.
The latest storm follows a severe cyclone that hit the west coast last week – the worst in over two decades in the western state of Gujarat – killing dozens after a barge sank in the sea. The eastern region was hit by a cyclone, equivalent to a category-three hurricane, in May 2020, while another one in 2019 prompted authorities to evacuate millions of people.
Federal home minister Amit Shah asked the state governments to ensure adequate power back-up for hospitals, laboratories, vaccine cold stores and other medical facilities, the ministry said in a statement.
Ports, refineries and plants were on alert. Indian Oil Corp, the biggest refiner, has stopped unloading crude oil at Paradip in Odisha, according to a spokesman.
Ongoing construction activities by oil and gas companies in the region have been temporarily suspended, according to Indian Oil. All ships carrying crude oil and other related products have been asked to keep a safe distance from the cyclone’s path, it said in a statement, adding that efforts are under way to ensure smooth supply of liquid medical oxygen from the eastern parts to the rest of the country.
More than 20 relief columns of the Indian army have been deployed and another nine are being kept on stand-by. Heavy and medium transport aircraft of the force have flown in more than 200 personnel and equipment of the National Disaster Response Force. – Bloomberg