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As India grapples with a devastating wave of COVID-19 cases, the country's official death toll surged passed the 200,000 mark. The crisis has been worsened by shortages in oxygen and medical equipment.
Coronavirus cases are surging in India, with the South Asian country reporting a global record of 362,567 new infections on Wednesday and the death toll crossing 200,000.
Indian officials said 3,293 people died in the past 24 hours, the first time the country saw over 3,000 fatalities in one day.
India has been logging global daily records of over 300,000 cases for the last seven days.
While the numbers are staggering, experts and epidemiological modelers believe that the real number of COVID cases and fatalities could be much higher.
Hospitals, meanwhile, are being stretched to breaking point with people dying outside their doors or at home due to a lack of beds, drugs and medical oxygen.
Crematoriums are working overtime, their chimneys cracking and iron frames melting from constant use. Wood is reportedly in short supply in places and some families are told to bring their own to burn.
Shuchin Bajaj, the co-founder and director of the Indian Ujala Cygnus hospital chain, told DW the situation in India is "worse than you can imagine."
"I get more than 500 calls a day from people asking for beds, asking for oxygen and asking for help," Bajaj said. India faces a widespread shortage of oxygen and vital medical supplies, exacerbating the crisis.
Bajaj said multiple factors are driving the explosion of infections in India.
"I think the sheer size of the population and the fact there are big metropolitan cities, congested areas, and the virus has mutated," he explained.
"We are seeing double mutant viruses, triple mutant viruses as well now. The UK variant is hugely prevalent in the northern part of the country. So a mix of all these factors, I think, is leading to this inferno that's engulfing everything in its path."
In the latest update from the World Health Organization, experts said India comprised 38% of the new cases reported worldwide last week.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told DW that a new variant discovered in India could be behind higher transmission rates: "It seems that this [Indian] variant has the capacity and potential to attach to human cells more easily. That would obviously mean more people being infected and that would lead to more hospitalizations and more deaths."
He stressed: "What we need to do now is really try to contain this transmission as much as possible through making sure that people who are sick follow their advice, do not necessarily go to hospital, but take care at home when possible, try to isolate there."
People's laxity and poor adherence to COVID-related precautionary measures have also contributed to the rapid spread of the virus, say experts.
Western countries are rushing to provide India with the vital supplies it needs to tackle the crisis.
Although India is one of the world's biggest producers of vaccines, the county does not yet have enough stock to vaccinate the next 600 million people who will be eligible for the jab.
On Wednesday, the co-founder of German firm BioNTech, which developed a COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer, voiced optimism that their jab would work against the new variant discovered in India.
"We are still testing the Indian variant, but the Indian variant has mutations that we have already tested for and which our vaccine works against, so I am confident," said BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin.
US President Joe Biden said Tuesday the US would soon send vaccine shipments to India, after he spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The US president did not indicate when the vaccines would be shipped to India.
The White House had previously announced Monday that the US would share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine with the rest of the world.
The UK expressed sorrow over the rising death toll in India on Wednesday, with Prince Charles saying he was "deeply saddened" by the "tragic images."
He also urged the public to support charity efforts to buy oxygen and equipment for India.
The push for more aid came a day after crates of ventilators and oxygen concentrators from the UK arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday, in the first shipment of Western aid to have reached India.
"We need really to stand with India now and try to help as much as we can," WHO spokesman Jasarevic said, adding: "We have not seen [a case explosion] in any other country on this scale."
Omid Nouripour, a German member of parliament and the deputy head of the German-Indian Parliamentary Friendship Group, said Germany must express solidarity with India.
"It's our duty to help our friends and India is our friend," Nouripour told DW. At the same time, he said "it's highly important the Indian government also ensures that superspreader events just stop."
The Modi administration's response to the pandemic has been controversial.
In March 2020, Modi announced a strict three-week nationwide lockdown, giving the country's 1.3 billion people just four hours notice before they would be confined to their homes.
Modi's government has come under fire for India's slow pace of vaccine rollout and lack of vital supplies. He has also been accused of downplaying the pandemic and censoring social media posts criticizing his government's handling of the crisis.
Vineeta Bal, a leading virologist from India's Institute of Immunology blamed "complacency" from political and religious leaders for the current crisis.
The belief India had "conquered the infection" allowed religious gatherings and political rallies in states holding elections to go ahead, she told DW.
"All of this gave a common message that it does not matter whether you keep distance between the people or if you don't wear masks," she said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in New Delhi. Modi's response to the pandemic has drawn widespread criticism.
Nitin Sinha, a senior research fellow at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, told DW the Indian government could be covering up the true extent of the country's coronavirus crisis.
"Some estimates suggest [the death toll is] at least five or ten times than what is being reported," Sinha said. She said the government may be suppressing information, which could be causing the death toll to be underreported.
"Very recently, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he actually said that those who are found spreading fake news of rumors will be rounded up under the National Security Act and their property will be seized," Sinha explained. She said "local reporters might feel threatened" by such actions by the government.
rs, wd/sri (Reuters, AFP, AP)