Doctor in India warns of ‘ticking time bomb’ in fight against coronavirus

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India reported a record of nearly 10,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday with health services in the worst-hit cities of Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai swamped by the rising infections.

India’s tally has reached 286,579 confirmed cases, the fifth highest in the world, with 8,102 deaths, including 357 in the last 24 hours.

The spike comes as the government moved ahead with the reopening of restaurants, shopping centres and places of worship in most of India after a lockdown of more than two months. Subways, hotels and schools remain closed.

The actual infection numbers are thought to be higher because of limited testing.

It also said that the total number of recovered patients has exceeded the active cases for the first time, with the recovery rate of nearly 49%.

In New Delhi, a sprawling capital region of 46 million and home to some of India’s highest concentration of hospitals, a pregnant woman’s death after a frantic hunt for a sickbed was a worrying sign about the country’s ability to cope with a wave of new coronavirus cases.

“She kept begging us to save her life, but we couldn’t do anything,” said Shailendra Kumar, after driving his sister-in-law, Neelam, and her husband for hours, only to be turned away at eight public and private hospitals.

Half of Delhi’s 8,200 hospital beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients are already full and officials are projecting more than half a million cases in the city alone by July 31.

People wait for Covid-19 screening at a hospital in New Delhi
People wait for Covid-19 screening at a hospital in New Delhi (Manish Swarup/AP)

“Unless and until the government increases its spending on healthcare, things won’t change. A lot of people will die,” he said. “But if some strong policy decisions are made not only in Delhi but across India, we can minimise the damage.”

Private hospitals in Delhi — a wider territory that encompasses New Delhi — report that all of their sickbeds and ventilators are in use. Severely ill people have been turned away from public hospitals, too.

“The surge is clearly visible now so we are in for a tough fight,” said Dr Mukesh Kumar, a neurologist at Delhi’s private Max Hospital who, like most of his colleagues, has been pulled in to care for Covid-19 patients.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has come under fire for imposing a 10-week nationwide lockdown that crippled the economy and triggered a humanitarian crisis as unemployed migrant workers fled for their ancestral villages on foot.

Government officials defended the measures as the cost of protecting India’s 1.3 billion people from a devastating loss of life. In a national televised address, Mr Modi said Indians’ sacrifice had “saved the nation”.

But in recent weeks, the government has eased lockdown restrictions, resulting in nearly 10,000 new infections per day.

Nurses at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, India’s premier public hospital in Delhi, have threatened to go on strike over ever-lengthening shifts and crowded personal protective equipment changing rooms.

Delhi’s government is now considering turning luxury hotels and sports stadiums into field hospitals.

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