India postponed exams for trainee doctors and nurses on Monday, freeing them up to fight the world’s biggest surge in coronavirus infections, as the health system crumbles under the weight of new cases and hospitals run out of beds and oxygen.
The total number of infections so far rose to just short of 20 million, propelled by a 12th straight day of more than 300,000 new cases in a pandemic sparked by a virus first identified in central China at the end of 2019.
Medical experts say actual numbers in India could be five to 10 times higher than those reported.
Hospitals have filled to capacity, supplies of medical oxygen have run short, and morgues and crematoriums have been overloaded with corpses. Patients are dying on hospital beds, in ambulances and in carparks outside.
Outside a temple in the capital, New Delhi, Sikh volunteers were providing oxygen to patients lying on benches inside makeshift tents, hooked up to a giant cylinder. Every 20 minutes or so, a new patient came in.
“No one should die because of a lack of oxygen. It’s a small thing otherwise, but nowadays, it is the one thing every one needs,” Gurpreet Singh Rummy, who runs the service, told Reuters.
Total infections since the start of the pandemic have reached 19.93 million in India, swelled by 368,147 new cases over the past 24 hours, while the death toll rose by 3,417 to 218,959, health ministry data showed. At least 3.4 million people are currently being treated.
Despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, India does not have enough for itself. Just 9% of a population of 1.35 billion has received a dose.
Vaccination centres in Mumbai were deserted after the state government said it did not have enough supplies to administer second doses for adults above 45.
Only limited doses were available for those aged 18-44 and no walk-ins were allowed.
India has struggled to increase capacity beyond 80 million doses a month due to a lack of raw materials and a fire at the Serum Institute, which makes the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Another manufacturer, Pfizer Inc (PFE.N), is in talks with the government for “expedited approval” of its vaccine, Chief Executive Albert Bourla said on LinkedIn, announcing a donation of medicines worth more than $70 million.
The Indian COVID-19 variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Iran and Switzerland, spurring several nations to close their borders to travellers from India.