New Delhi went into a weekend closure on Saturday when India faces a cruel new coronavirus wave, with more than 200,000 fresh daily cases and families wanting drugs and hospital beds.
Hopes that South Asian countries may have hit the pandemic have faded as India has seen over two million new cases alone this month and Bangladesh and Pakistan imposing suspensions.
India’s share per capita remains low by international standards, raising the prospect that the number of infections – possibly driven by a virulent new “double mutant” – could explode further.
After a national shutdown a year ago led to hundreds of deaths and one of the worst downturns in any major economy, the Indian government is desperate to avoid a second stop.
However, many states are squeezing in, including hotspot Maharashtra, industrial-heavy Gujarat and IT hub Bangalore’s home state of Karnataka, although the restrictions are less burdensome than last year.
The state of Uttar Pradesh, home to some 240 million people, announced on Friday that all villages and towns would be locked for a day on Sunday.
In the capital New Delhi, which has passed Mumbai as the worst-hit Indian city, restaurants, malls, gyms and spas were closed for the weekend.
However, weddings can continue with guests limited to 50, while a maximum of 20 people can attend funerals. Cinemas can be opened with a third capacity.
“Do not panic. All essential services will be available over the weekend,” said the city’s prime minister, Arvind Kejriwal, of 25 million people.
Fear that religious festival will cause virus spread
Similarly, the northern state of Uttarakhand has limited gatherings to 200 people – with the exception of the extensive ongoing Hindu festival Kumbh Mela.
The Haridwar collection has attracted as many as 25 million people since January, including about 4.6 million this week alone, with most people ignoring the Covid-19 guidelines.
A viewer on Thursday died of the virus and 80 other holy men have tested positive, and experts fear that the millions of devotees are now taking the virus back to their hometowns and villages.
Election meetings are also taking place in the eastern state of West Bengal, with Interior Minister Amit Shah attending two road shows and a public meeting only on Friday.
In the state capital Kolkata, railway employee Samaresh Tapna became ill after attending such a gathering and was in hospital.
“I felt angry … I cursed my fate,” the 42-year-old told AFP.
Hospitals lack oxygen and coronavirus drugs like Remdesivir, which makes desperate people pay exorbitant prices on the black market.
Social media is full of horror stories about desperate conversations to help a loved one who needs hospital care for Covid-19 or other complaints.
“I lost a cousin on Saturday. He was not admitted after a stroke. Tried four hospitals,” read a message in a WhatsApp group in Delhi this week.
In a disturbing new trend, doctors told AFP that they had seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 patients under the age of 45, including children.
“Last year, there were virtually no children showing symptoms,” said Khusrav Bajan, a consultant at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja National Hospital.
India’s efforts to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people have also been hampered, with only 117 million shots administered so far and stocks running out, according to some local authorities.
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“(It is) understandable that many people are tired of the limitations and want to resume normal life. We must redouble our efforts to limit this disease because too many lives are at stake,” said Udaya Regmi of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. (IFRC).
“This is a wake-up call to the world. Vaccines must be available to everyone, everywhere, rich and poor to overcome this terrible pandemic,” Regmi said in a statement, calling the sharp rise across South Asia “really scary.”