India’s second Covid-19 wave overwhelms under-resourced regions

Bodies of virus victims wash up on banks of Ganges river as funeral pyres blaze continuously

Bodies of people who died of Covid-19 are cremated at an open crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India on Wednesday.  Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

Bodies of people who died of Covid-19 are cremated at an open crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India on Wednesday. Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP


India’s second coronavirus wave is overwhelming regions which lack even rudimentary health facilities and where doctors and support medical staff are scarce.

Funeral pyres blaze continuously on the streets in small towns and villages, while scores of bodies of Covid-19 victims washed up again on Wednesday on the banks of the Ganges river in northern Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar states.

Officials in Uttar Pradesh state, which has a population of 204 million, which is among the worst affected by the pandemic, said relatives of the deceased had floated these bodies in the river as they were either fearful of contracting the virus or had simply run out of firewood to cremate them.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, 108km north of the federal capital New Delhi, virus patients were forced into bringing their own beds and sheets to the overcrowded government-run Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial Medical College.

“We were lucky we carried our own bed,” university student Vashisht Sharma, who took his father to the hospital in late April, told the Indian Express newspaper on Tuesday.

“Things are bad here with patients lying on bed sheets on the hospital floor,” he said, adding that makeshift beds had been forced into all available space in the hospital’s emergency ward.

Relatives of the infected, he said, were attending on them as there was neither nursing or support staff to cater for the scrum of patients swarming into the hospital’s unventilated wards, in searing summer temperatures of 37 degrees. Large buckets were placed under leaking overhead pipes in at least three spots in one of the wards, the Express reported.

Similar shortages of equipment and staff were mirrored across India. Hospital morgues too were overflowing, and many who had died in hospitals could not get a doctor to issue a death certificate. There were also reports of Covid-19 not being specified as the cause of death because victims had not been tested in time.

Cow urine

Amid such turmoil, Uttar Pradesh’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was providing oximeters and thermal scanners to cows housed in state “gaushalas” or cow shelters.

In a press release on May 7th, the office of state chief minister Yogi Adityanath said that in view of the pandemic, 700 helpdesks for cows had been set up across the state and 51 oximeters and 341 thermal scanners provided to “ensure better animal care and testing”.

After this news went viral, Mr Adityanath’s office issued a clarification that the medical equipment was meant for the staff at the cow shelters, an explanation few believed.

Cows are sacred to Hindus and ever since the BJP assumed federal power in 2014 and subsequently in states including Uttar Pradesh, it has decreed that their protection and preservation is one of its priorities.

Several BJP leaders have also propagated drinking cow urine to counter the virus pandemic. Sunder Singh, a BJP legislator from Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district, recently released a video of himself on social media drinking cow urine, accompanied by detailed instructions on how to imbibe it.

Doctors have also issued warnings against the practice of using cow dung as a counter to ward off the virus, after hundreds of believers in prime minister Narendra Modi’s western home state of Gujarat covered their bodies with it.

Doctors cautioned against this practice as it involved large groups of people gathering at cow shelters to cover themselves with dung, convinced it provided them with immunity against the virus or alternatively, helped them recover from it.

Virus infections across India rose by 348,421 over the 24 hours to Wednesday, while a record 4,204 fatalities were registered, taking the country’s overall death tally from Covid-19 to over 250,000. Experts and non-governmental organisations, however, believe the actual number to be far higher.