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India records over 20 million cases amid oxygen shortage

NEW DELHI, India: India has recorded more than 20 million Covid infections, but the government claimed that cases are “slowing down”.

The country added more than 355,000 cases on Tuesday, down from more than 400,000 daily cases on 30 April. But testing numbers have dipped as well, sparking fears that India’s true caseload is far higher.

Case numbers, however, been consistently falling in Maharashtra state, which had driven the second wave since early April.

Meanwhile, an oxygen shortage has shown no signs of abating and people in several hotspot cities, including the capital Delhi, are struggling for treatment.

India’s second wave, fuelled by lax safety protocols and massive public festivals and election rallies, has also overwhelmed its hospitals. Delays in testing, diagnosis and treatment, as well as a shortage of critical care beds and crucial drugs, has resulted in a spike in deaths too.

The country has so far reported more than 222,000 deaths due to the virus. But experts say India’s Covid death toll is vastly under-reported as official tallies don’t appear to match what people are witnessing on the ground – long lines at crematoriums, mass funeral pyres and cities running out of space to bury or cremate the dead.

Many states have introduced restrictions, from full lockdowns to night curfews. The northern state of Bihar, which has been adding about 13,000 daily cases in recent days, is the latest to announce a full lockdown -only essential services, such as government offices, groceries and hospitals, will be opened.

While India’s daily caseload does appear to have fallen, it’s too early to say if infections are slowing down.

Given delays in testing and official record-keeping, experts typically look at weekly averages rather than daily cases for a more accurate picture. And on average, India’s cases were rising this past week – but at a slower rate than the previous week.

Erratic testing, however, makes it hard to gauge the significance of these numbers. While Maharashtra’s testing numbers have been consistent, Delhi’s have dropped in recent weeks.

The other issue, experts say, is insufficient testing. While Uttar Pradesh, one of the worst-affected states, has recorded no drop-in testing figures, it’s testing far less than other states.

It’s India’s most populated state, with more than 220 million people and is doing about 184,000 tests per million people. Compare that to Tamil Nadu, which has about 75 million people and is doing more than 300,000 tests per million of its population.

Health officials said there was “cautious hope” of some respite from the second wave. But Lav Agarwal, joint secretary of the health ministry, said that the “gains” were very early and needed to be sustained by “containment measures at district and state level”.

Experts also say that other hotspots are likely to emerge in the coming weeks as the pandemic moves through the country.

Delhi’s government has said it wants the army to run Covid care facilities and intensive care units.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has repeatedly said that the city was not getting enough oxygen from the federal government, which allocates oxygen quotas to states.

But federal officials deny there are shortages, saying the challenge has come from transportation.

India produces thousands of tonnes of oxygen a day, but some experts say the supply crunch comes from a lack of investment in distribution networks.

India on Tuesday confirmed more than 20 million coronavirus infections in the official total, though the figure is believed to be a vast undercount.

A vicious surge in Covid-19 cases has left the country’s healthcare system at breaking point, with hospitals running out of oxygen and nearly all hospital beds occupied.

The country has witnessed scenes of people dying outside overwhelmed hospitals and funeral pyres lighting up the night sky.