NEW DELHI — India reported a global record of more than 314,000 new infections Thursday as a grim coronavirus surge hits the world's second-most populous country, sending more and more sick people into a fragile health care system critically short of hospital beds and oxygen.
The 314,835 infections added in the past 24 hours raise India's total past 15.9 million cases since the pandemic began. It's the second-highest total in the world next to the United States. India has nearly 1.4 billion people.
A large number of hospitals are reporting acute shortages of beds and medicine and are running on dangerously low levels of oxygen.
The New Delhi High Court on Wednesday ordered the government to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to save people’s lives.
"You can't have people die because there is no oxygen. Beg, borrow or steal, it is a national emergency,” the judges said responding to a petition by a New Delhi hospital seeking its intervention.
The government is rushing oxygen tankers to replenish supplies to hospitals.
India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Thursday that "demand and supply is being monitored round the clock.” He said in a tweet that to address the exponential spike in demand, the government has increased the quota of oxygen for the worst-hit seven states.
The surge has brought pain, fear and agony to many lives in New Delhi and other cities.
In scenes familiar across the country, ambulances are seen rushing from one hospital to another, trying to find an empty bed. Grieving relatives are lining up outside crematoriums where the arrival of dead bodies has jumped several times.
“I get numerous calls every day from patients desperate for a bed. The demand is far too much than the supply," said Dr. Sanjay Gururaj, a doctor at Bengaluru-based Shanti Hospital and Research Center.
“I try to find beds for patients every day, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to help them. In the last week, three patients of mine have died at home because they were unable to get beds. As a doctor, it’s an awful feeling,” Gururaj said.
India has launched a vaccination drive but only a tiny fraction of the population has had the shots.
Authorities have announced that vaccines will be available to anyone over the age of 18 from May 1 but India won't have enough shots for the 600 million people who will become eligible, experts say.
Health experts said India had let its guard down when the virus seemed to be under control during the winter, when new daily cases were about 10,000, and it lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings.
Some experts say new, more infectious virus variants, in particular a "double mutant" variant that originated in India, are largely responsible for the spike in cases but many also blame the politicians.
"The second wave is a consequence of complacency and mixing and mass gatherings. You don't need a variant to explain the second wave," said Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government ordered an extensive lockdown last year, in the early stages of the pandemic, but has been wary of the economic costs of more tough restrictions.
In recent weeks, the government has come in for criticism for holding packed political rallies for local elections and allowing a Hindu festival at which millions gathered.