Scores of bodies have been seen washing up on the banks of the Ganges amid a shortage of wood for Hindu cremations - another grim sign of the awful crisis in the world’s second most populous country.
India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, currently accounts for one in three of the reported deaths from coronavirus around the world, according to a Reuters tally, overwhelming hospital and medical staff, as well as mortuaries and crematoriums.
The brutal second wave of Covid-19 infections has spread from the cities to small towns and the countryside, ripping through a fragile health system ill-equipped for a crisis of this scale.
Watch: India's COVID dead passes 250,000
Lacking beds, drugs and medical oxygen, hospitals have been forced to turn away droves of sufferers, while tales of desperate relatives searching for someone to treat dying loved ones have become commonplace.
Many victims die without a doctor on hand to issue a death certificate, and even when a doctor is available, Covid-19 is not specified as the cause of death unless the deceased was tested for the disease.
Deaths from the disease swelled by 4,205, the health ministry said on Wednesday, bringing the total death toll to 254,197. Coronavirus cases rose by 348,421, with India’s overall number of cases surging past 23 million.
Even then, experts believe the official numbers grossly underestimate the real scale of the epidemic’s impact, and actual deaths and infections could be five to ten times higher.
A leading virologist said it was too early to say if infections have peaked in the pandemic’s current epicentre.
“It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak,” Shahid Jameel was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper. “There is some indication of the cases plateauing. But we must not forget that this is a very high plateau. We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day.”
Rural parts of the country are running short of wood for traditional Hindu cremations and scores of bodies are washing up on the banks of the Ganges river which flows through the most populous areas of the northern plains.
Akhand Pratap, a resident of Ghazipur district in sprawling Uttar Pradesh state, said that "people are immersing bodies in the holy Ganges river instead of cremation because of shortage of cremation wood".
Even in the capital, New Delhi, many Covid victims are abandoned by their relatives after cremation, leaving volunteers to wash the ashes, pray over them, and then take them to scatter into the river, rituals usually conducted by the family.
In a report published Wednesday, the World Health Organisation said the B.1.617 variant first identified in India had been detected in at least 44 countries so far. The global health body has classified it as a "variant of concern" that requires heightened tracking and analysis.
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