Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 and leaks from human cells. Image Credit: NIAID

New Delhi led major cities across India to a weekend lockdown on Saturday as the country faced a violent new wave of coronavirus, with more than 230,000 new cases and families calling for drugs and hospital beds every day.

Hopes that South Asia might have beaten the pandemic were dashed when India recorded over two million new cases this month alone, and Bangladesh and Pakistan also imposed shutdowns.

India added another record of 234,000 cases on Saturday, to total 14.5 million, and 1,341 deaths resulted in a pandemic of 175,649 deaths.

Per capita rates remain low by international standards, but the rate at which cases are rising led the international Red Cross to label the South Asian boom “really scary”.

India now has three times as many cases as the United States, the hardest hit country in the world.

After a national lockdown led to an economic slump a year ago, the Indian government is desperate to avoid a second deadlock. But Delhi, along with Mumbai, has closed all but essential services.

Landmarks like the historic Red Fort, where tens of thousands of people usually gathered, were deserted. “Not a person has shown up,” said security guard Anil Dayan. The police checked many of the cars on the road.

The city of more than 20 million people now has the most daily falls in India and restaurants, shopping malls and gyms have all been closed. Weddings can be performed with guests up to 50 people while only 20 can attend funerals.

“Don’t panic. All major services will be available over the weekend,” said Delhi’s Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, Gujarat and the home state of Karnataka, the Bangalore IT center, has also imposed restrictions on movement.

The state of Uttar Pradesh, in which around 240 million people live, ordered a one-day lockdown on Sunday.

Festival fears

Similarly, the northern state of Uttarakhand has limited gatherings to 200 people – except for the huge Hindu Kumbh Mela festival.

The Haridwar meeting has attracted up to 25 million people since January, including 4.6 million this week alone, with most people ignoring COVID-19 guidelines.

More than 1,600 people tested positive for coronavirus in just under three days this week in Haridwar, and experts fear many followers will bring the virus back to their hometowns and villages.

The last round of voting also took place in the elections in West Bengal, with long queues in front of the polling stations. Rival parties have held large rallies again in recent weeks, fueling fears among super-spreaders.

In the state capital, Kolkata, railroad worker Samaresh Tapna fell ill and was hospitalized after such a gathering.

“I was mad at myself … I cursed my fate,” the 42-year-old told AFP.

Medicines are running low

Hospitals lack oxygen and common drugs like remdesivir and fabiflu, causing desperate people to pay exorbitant black market prices.

Social media is full of horror stories of desperate calls to help a loved one who needs hospital treatment for COVID-19 or other ailments.

“I lost a cousin on Saturday. He was not admitted after a stroke. I tried 4 hospitals,” read a message in a WhatsApp group in Delhi this week.

India’s quest to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people has also encountered obstacles. According to some local authorities, only 117 million shots have been administered and stocks are running low.

“This is a wake-up call to the world. Vaccines must be available to everyone, everywhere, poor or rich, to overcome this terrible pandemic,” said Udaya Regmi of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), describing conditions in South Asia as “really scary”.

“We have to redouble our efforts to contain this disease as too many lives are at stake,” added Regmi.

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