Japan's restaurant booze ban sets new Covid-19 emergency apart
Japan is singling out alcohol consumption in bars and restaurants in a new state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures, a response that highlights experts' belief that alcohol can help accelerate transmission of Covid-19.
Amricans advised to avoid all travels to South Asian nations
In a series of travel advisories on Thursday, the authorities also urged Americans to reconsider travel to China and Nepal; exercise increased caution while travelling to Sri Lanka and exercise normal travel precaution to Bhutan, which has been given Level 1, the safest level for travelling overseas.
Bodies piling up at crematoriums: Record death toll may hide extent of India’s COVID-19 crisis
India|: New Delhi: Bodies piling up at crematoriums and burial grounds across India are sparking concerns that the death toll from a ferocious new COVID-19 wave may be much higher than official records, underplaying the scale of a resurgence that is overwhelming the country’s medical system. Several cities across the South Asian nation have reported shocking details of bodies, wrapped in protective gear and identified by hospitals as virus-related deaths, lined up outside crematoriums for hours. Accounts collated by Bloomberg from relatives of the dead and workers and eyewitnesses at crematoriums in at least five cities indicate that the real number of COVID-19 fatalities could be significantly higher than the deaths being reported by local government health departments. On Friday, India registered 330,000 COVID new cases and 2,000 deaths in 24 hours. With nearly 16 million cases in total, it is the second-worst affected nation in the world, lagging behind only the US. But while the US caseload is twice as high, its death toll is three times what India has reported. The surge in Asia’s third-largest economy puts at risk not only its fragile economic recovery but also the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Poor count Deaths in India have always been counted poorly, even before the pandemic struck. The vast majority of deaths, especially in rural villages, take place at home and routinely go unregistered. For others the cause of death listed is often anodyne - old age or heart attack - leading experts to estimate that only between 20%-30% of all deaths in India are properly medically certified. News reports from across India suggest that a combination of poor testing and a health system that is inundated by the crush of those sickened by the virus has meant that counting COVID-19 deaths accurately remains a struggle even a year into the health crisis. Ambulances are lined up at a crematorium on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on Friday, April 23, 2021. Image Credit: Bloomberg Not capturing death data accurately “creates the misconception that media is showcasing anecdotal cases and the overall situation is under control,” said Himanshu Sikka, the chief strategy officer, health at IPE Global, a development consulting firm. “This damages future preparations and measures needed for a possible third wave.” Data vs cremations In Lucknow, the capital city of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, the official number of COVID-19 deaths between April 11 to April 16 stood at 145. However, just two of the city’s main crematoriums reported more than 430 or three times as many cremations under COVID-19 protocol in that period, according to eyewitnesses and workers, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorised to speak to reporters. This doesn’t account for burials or funerals at other smaller cremation grounds in the city. When a Lucknow resident, who asked not to be named, reached one of the main crematoriums with the body of a family friend on Monday morning he was told they could set up the funeral pyre anywhere they could find space. Even so, it took over three hours to find a spot that was far away enough to tolerate the heat emanating from the other burning bodies. He was not allowed to use the electric furnace set aside for virus deaths because the dead man didn’t have a report showing he’d tested positive for the virus even though he had a doctor’s prescription for COVID-19 treatment. No relatives could attend the funeral as they had all tested positive and were under home isolation. Not attributed to COVID-19 After the patient died in a city hospital, the staff wrapped the body in the protective kits used for COVID-19 deaths. The majority of the nearly 50 bodies the Lucknow citizen saw arriving in the four hours he spent at the crematorium were wrapped the same way but were not cremated in the virus-only electric furnace, he said. That likely meant their deaths weren’t attributed to COVID-19. In the industrial city of Surat, located in Gujarat, the head of a trust that runs crematoriums said at least 100 bodies have been brought in each day for the last 10 days, wrapped in the COVID-19-mandated protective covering. Surat’s municipal body on April 19 reported only 28 virus deaths. “Structures within the furnace, like the metal frames and the chimney, are melting and falling apart,” Kamlesh Sailor said. “Repairing it and keeping it going is a challenge, but we have no other way, bodies will have to be disposed of as quickly as possible.” “The figure of deaths is dynamic, difficult to reconcile from plain reading,” said Navneet Sehgal, additional chief secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government. “No one is trying to hide Covid-19 deaths. Some of the deaths in Lucknow which are included as deaths because of COVID-19 are actually normal deaths which would have been counted wrongly.” There was no immediate comment from the spokesperson of the Gujarat government. Sanjeev Gupta, a freelance photojournalist in the central city of Bhopal, said he has consistently witnessed 80 to 120 bodies being cremated each day last week at just one of the city’s three cremation centres set aside for COVID-19 cases. The official virus death numbers for the district were below 10 each day. According to news reports, the state government said the deaths were “suspected COVID-19” but couldn’t be confirmed because of a shortage of testing kits and lab facilities. Counting struggles The speed with which the pandemic swept across the world meant that even in countries with sophisticated health systems, mortality was difficult to accurately assess, especially in the early days. Patients with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic conditions are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Some governments, including Russia, had last year attributed the cause of deaths in some of these patients to the pre-existing condition, raising doubts about the veracity of official mortality data. Tens of thousands of probable COVID-19 deaths in the US weren’t captured by official statistics between March and May 2020, a study in July found. India’s federal Health Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment. Even without accurate figures, the deadly impact of India’s second wave is hard to miss. Four pages of the local language Sandesh newspaper in Rajkot, another Gujarat city, were covered with obituaries on Wednesday. A month ago, they took up only a quarter of a page.
Time running out for missing Indonesian submarine as US joins search
Asia|: Jakarta: Rescue teams from several countries were battling against time on Friday to find a missing Indonesian Navy submarine lost in the Bali Sea with 53 crew, which would be rapidly running out of oxygen if not already crushed by water pressure. Search helicopters and more navy ships left Bali and a naval base in Java at first light heading to the area where contact was lost with the 44-year-old KRI Nanggala-402 on Wednesday as it prepared to conduct a torpedo drill. “The main priority is the safety of the 53 crew members,” President Joko Widodo said late on Thursday. Indonesia’s navy said it was investigating whether the submarine lost power during a dive and could not carry out emergency procedures as it descended to a depth of 600-700 metres, well beyond its survivable limits. Aerial search An object with “high magnetic force” had been spotted “floating” at a depth of 50-100 metres, Indonesian Navy Chief of Staff Yudo Margono said, and an aerial search had earlier spotted an oil spill near the submarine’s last location. If the submarine was still intact, officials said it would only have enough air to last about another 15 hours until early Saturday morning. The diesel-electric powered submarine could withstand a depth of up to 500 metres (1,640 ft) but anything more could be fatal, Navy spokesman Julius Widjojono said. The Bali Sea can reach depths of more than 1,500 metres. One of the people on board the boat was the commander of the Indonesian submarine fleet, Harry Setiawan. An Indonesian defence expert said the crew could still be found alive. “But if the submarine is in a 700-metre sea trough, it will be difficult for them to survive because underwater pressure will cause cracks and ruptures of the steel hull,” Connie Rahakundini Bakrie said. The submarine joined the Indonesian fleet in 1981, according to the defence ministry, and underwent a refit in South Korea completed in 2012. It was said to be in good condition. “I hope that they will be found alive,” said Berda Asmara, the wife of crew member Guntur Ari Prasetyo, 39, who has sailed on the Nanggala for 10 years. “We had a video call. He told me that he would go sailing and asked me to pray for him,” she said of the last time they spoke. Specialised ships Australia, India, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States have sent specialised ships or aircraft in response to Indonesian requests for assistance. The U.S. Defence Department is sending “airborne assets” to assist in the submarine search, a Pentagon spokesman said. Two Australian Navy ships were heading for the search area including a frigate with special sonar capabilities, the defence department said. Indonesia operates five submarines - two German-built Type 209s including Nanggala and three newer South Korean vessels. It has been seeking to modernise its defence capabilities but some of its equipment is old and there have been fatal accidents in recent years.
COVID-19-hit Indonesia orders executions online
Asia|: Jakarta: Indonesia has sentenced scores of prisoners to death over Zoom and other video apps during the pandemic in what critics say is an “inhumane” insult to those facing the firing squad. The Southeast Asian nation turned to virtual court hearings as COVID-19 restrictions shut down most in-person trials, including murder and drug trafficking cases, which can carry the death penalty. Since early last year, almost 100 inmates have been condemned to die in Indonesia by judges they could only see on a television monitor, according to Amnesty International. The Muslim-majority nation has some of the world’s toughest drug laws and both Indonesian and foreign traffickers have been executed, including the masterminds of Australia’s Bali Nine heroin gang. This month, 13 members of a trafficking ring, including three Iranians and a Pakistani, learned via video that they would be shot for smuggling 400 kilograms of methamphetamine into Indonesia. And on Wednesday a Jakarta court sentenced six militants to death using a video app over their role in a 2018 prison riot that left five members of Indonesia’s counter-terror squad dead. “Virtual hearings degrade the rights of defendants facing death sentences - it’s about someone’s life and death,” said Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid. “The death penalty has always been a cruel punishment. But this online trend adds to the injustice and inhumanity,” he added. ‘Clear disadvantage’ Indonesia has pressed on with the virtual hearings even as the number of executions and death sentences dropped globally last year, with COVID-19 disrupting many criminal proceedings, Amnesty said in its annual capital punishment report this week. Virtual hearings leave defendants unable to fully participate in cases that are sometimes interrupted in countries with poor internet connections, including Indonesia, critics say. “Virtual platforms... can expose the defendant to significant violations of their fair trial rights and impinge on the quality of the defence,” NGO Harm Reduction International said in a recent report on the death penalty for drug offences. Lawyers have complained about being unable to consult with clients due to virus restrictions. And families of the accused have sometimes been barred from accessing hearings that would normally be open to the public. “These virtual hearings present a clear disadvantage for defendants,” said Indonesian lawyer Dedi Setiadi. Setiadi, who defended several men sentenced to die in the methamphetamine case this month, said he would appeal their case on the grounds that virtual hearings were unfair. Relatives of the defendants were not given full access, the lawyer said. Death penalty cases are often reduced to long jail terms in Indonesia and an in-person trial might have brought about a less severe verdict, according to Setiadi, who described his clients as low-level players in the smuggling ring. “The verdict could have been different if the judges had talked directly with the defendants and seen their expressions,” he said. “A Zoom hearing is less personal.” ‘Heaviest sentence possible’ Indonesia’s supreme court, which ordered online hearings during the pandemic, did not reply to requests for comment. But the country’s judicial commission told AFP that it has asked the top court to consider returning to in-person trials for serious offences, including capital cases. Indonesia appears to be an outlier in holding virtual trials for death penalty cases, although reliable data can be hard to come by in some nations that impose executions. Neighbouring Singapore, which executes convicted murderers and drug traffickers, has sentenced at least one person to hang via video since the global health crisis began. There are nearly 500 people, including scores of foreigners, awaiting execution in Indonesia, where condemned prisoners are marched to a jungle clearing, tied to a stake and shot. Indonesia has not carried out executions for several years. But its courts have continued to sentence defendants to death on the back of strong public backing for the ultimate punishment - support that may have been bolstered by the pandemic. “Advocates think that these criminals are continuing to commit crimes even during a time of crisis when everyone is suffering,” Amnesty’s Hamid said. “So they must be given the heaviest sentence possible.”
U.S. defends restrictions on export of COVID-19 vaccine raw materials amid India's request to lift ban
International: The suppliers of its raw materials, which is in high demand globally and sought after by major Indian manufacturers, are being forced to provide it only for domestic manufacturers in the U.S.
How COVID-19 has left India’s education sector in tatters
Thiruvananthapuram: In early March 2020, when Maria S. took a bus to her native Kottayam district from Bengaluru where she was in her second year of under-graduation at one of India’s prestigious colleges, she was elated by the unexpected holiday break presented by the lockdown. More than a year later, she feels downright miserable: “My entire final year of college has been washed out, merely attending online classes. Placements are unlikely and my class does not even know when we will have the final exams and whether they will be online”, she says. Maria is not alone in her angst at having lost what should have been an enjoyable and defining year of her life. Roughly 28 million students are enrolled in various under graduate programmes in India, who are all facing various degrees of uncertainty. Add the school student numbers and you get the Himalayan proportion of youth and children of India who are the most scarred-for-life owing to the coronavirus-related disruptions. A decade ago, India’s last census in 2011 had revealed that the nation had 315 million students, the largest student population in the world, and a number that nearly equals the entire population of the US. All those millions now stay at home, bewildered about what life holds for them. Devices and disrupted lives On paper, India has adopted the online option for education, but that is understating what actually happens with real learning. Students being screened as they arrive to take the SSLC Examination at a school in Kochi, Kerala, in May 2020. Image Credit: ANI Given the meagre resources of large numbers of Indian parents, many could not afford the devices that their children needed for education. Parents who had to go to work couldn’t share devices with children and many who had devices were victims of unreliable internet connections. An early casualty was a Class 10 girl in Kerala’s Malappuram district who took her life in June 2020 because she could not attend online classes. The girl, who had neither a television nor smart phone at home, left a heart-breaking single-line note in her room, “I am going”. Piano classes online While financially strained families struggled to arrange devices for their children, even the well-heeled in other parts of India could feel the pain of their children losing out on wholesome education, consigned to homes in front of screens. The classes are going on but the question is how much they actually learn. Maya, a parent. Maya P, who has two children in classes 5 and 1 in Mahim, Mumbai, told Gulf News she is really worried whether so many months of online studies will affect the reading and writing skills of her children. “The classes are going on but the question is how much they actually learn. There’s very little of reading or writing, and even the examinations are mainly in the MCQ (multiple-choice question) format, requiring the student only to tick a box or an answer. “Children are merely little boxes on the teacher’s screen and how can any teacher devote personal attention to each of them?” asks Maya. And then there are frills that schools in India’s cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai offer, like piano classes. But there is a catch – those classes too have shifted online and now students need to have their own piano at home. Similarly, speech and drama classes in schools have also shifted online and fees are duly charged, with no assurance on the learning outcomes. Broken routines What has bothered parents – both employed and homemakers – over the past year has been the challenge of managing children not 24x7, but 24x365. “The whole family worked around the school and office routines. Now all are stuck at home. When they could go to school, they had a fixed routine and were kept engaged for about six hours. Now their online classes take only about one-and-a-half hours and the onus of keeping them engaged and entertained is on the family,” says Maya. Students wearing protective face masks ride their bicycles as they head to their school to attend their classes after authorities ordered schools to reopen voluntarily for classes 9 to 12, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Nalbari town in the northeastern state of Assam, India, in September 2020. Image Credit: Reuters Parents who are working from home and also have to sit with their young children when they attend their online classes are in a Catch-22 situation. “I used to be strict about the children’s screen time. But now that they are at home all the time and if I get busy they exploit that,” says Maya. As for children, with their school timings shrunk to a third and no commuting or interaction with friends, screen is what they turn to for any kind of entertainment. Unending chores It has been equally tough for teachers, who have had to adapt to the online classroom, prepare fresh material to suit the changed teaching ecosystem, and endure virtually unending work hours to give online assignments, evaluate them online and handle telephonic queries from parents and students round the clock. “I taught on the phone, struggled to get my young kids to be attentive on their devices, prepared my notes and teaching material, evaluated online assignments, handled parents’ queries and much more. Work stretched late into the night and began early morning. I hardly had time to breathe Anna, a school teacher in Kerala. Anna T., a school teacher in Kerala’s Kottayam district who made her teaching debut in the lockdown year, personifies the pain working women with young children have borne during COVID-19. Anna has three children aged seven, five and three, all of who had to be monitored while they attended online classes at different times of the day, even as she herself had to engage different classes. This, besides handling the kitchen and getting lunch ready for her businessman husband who would drop in briefly at mid-day amid his own busy schedule to keep the business going. “I taught on the phone, struggled to get my young kids to be attentive on their devices, prepared my notes and teaching material, evaluated online assignments, handled parents’ queries and much more. Work stretched late into the night and began early morning. I hardly had time to breathe”, recollects Anna. At the end of it all, her school, like numerous other educational institutions, slashed her pay cheque. That was the final straw. She put in her papers, ending a largely forgettable debut year. Dashed college dreams India’s median age is only 27 years, and the country has roughly 230 million in the 15-24 age group, statistics that would be the envy of any nation from the aspect of demographic dividend. But COVID-19 has dashed the dreams of India’s college students, some of who have not been fortunate even to step into their campuses. For many university students, it is like living in the World War years. Incomplete education and uncertainty about jobs and their future. We have hardly anything to remember of our college days; no farewell, only a limited interaction with our seniors, and barely any placements. Anamika S., a college student in Kerala. When Anamika S. went to college in Kochi for B.Com in 2018, she had heady dreams of life on campus and a bright career thereafter. The floods of 2018 in Kerala curtailed a lot of her classes in the first year and the third year was a total washout owing to the lockdown. “We have hardly anything to remember of our college days; no farewell, only a limited interaction with our seniors, and barely any placements. I was in the college dance team and the kabaddi team but inter-collegiate competitions weren’t held”, rues Anamika. PG and piano alike – online Paying for online piano classes is bad enough, so think of paying a couple of million rupees for post graduate education and sitting at home attending online classes. Anamika went through national entrance tests to secure a seat for post-graduation in a leading Bengaluru college, but she has already been told that until July classes will be online. “Seems like my next innings will also be in front of a laptop,” Anamika says with a sense of resignation at the helpless turn of events. Teachers work in a staff room at a government high school in Hyderabad in September 2020. Image Credit: AFP Anamika is not alone. George M. who is pursuing MBA at a leading Bengaluru college spent nearly his entire first year at home, attending online classes. When classes finally began towards the end of the first year, there was a fresh outbreak of the virus and college was shut again after hurriedly-held exams. “We could barely meet our seniors who had to leave without a proper farewell, a college-day celebration and very few getting placed. We may be in for a similar experience”, fears George. What is bugging George and his classmates is the lingering uncertainty, and its fallout. “When classes finally began, many of our good teachers quit because they didn’t want to risk contacting the virus from live classrooms. That meant the remaining teachers engaging more subjects, which meant a tangible dip in quality”, says George. Financially challenged Just as students have been deprived of a complete education, so have their parents’ livelihoods been battered by intermittent shutdowns, lockdowns and curfews by ever-changing rules imposed by India’s federal and provincial governments. “Financial problems have hit many parents, leading to non-payment of school fees. There were several parents who could not pay the final-term fees of 2019-20 because India’s financial slowdown was biting even before COVID-19 struck. The arrears were just brought forward into the next academic year in June 2020, and it seems like the arrears will balloon further if and when school opens in June 2021,” says Peter V., a Kottayam-based businessman. In the school where three of Peter’s children study, the year-end results put students in two categories – ‘P’ and ‘W’. ‘P’ for passed, and ‘W’ for ‘result withheld, meet the principal’, which is another way of saying your ward’s fee remains unpaid. Long struggle ahead Despite their own struggles, many parents can understand the predicament of schools. As more students join the ranks of fee defaulters, schools are resorting to major salary cuts for teachers and other staff, and laying off support staff like ayahs (maids), drivers, cleaners, gardeners and security staff. Amid the gloom, some try to shovel up positive thoughts. Says Anamika: “If there is one gain from this dark patch in life, it is the fact that I got to spend a lot of time with my dad, a busy advertising and public relations professional who used to spend precious little time with the family”. Bengaluru-based George can also find one silver lining in his highly truncated post-graduate programme: “MBA is meant to prepare you for life. By having to go through the course in these times, life gives you a big practical lesson in handling setbacks.” Anamika, George and millions of their young contemporaries across India would, however, want to see not just a silver lining, but the skies to clear.
Oxygen gets armed escort in India as supplies run low in COVID-19 crisis
India|: New Delhi: Sirens wailing, a police convoy escorting a tanker carrying oxygen reached a hospital in India’s capital just in time, to the huge relief of doctors and relatives of COVID-19 patients counting on the supply to stave off death. India on Friday posted the world’s largest daily COVID-19 caseload for a second day, with 332,730 new cases and 2,263 deaths, as the pandemic spiralled out of control. A dire shortage of oxygen - essential for the survival of critical COVID-19 patients - has meant states are closely guarding their supplies and even posting armed police at production plants to ensure security. Several hospitals, including Shanti Mukand in the west of the New Delhi with 110 COVID-19 patients, said they had almost exhausted their oxygen supplies on Thursday. The prospects for patients and their distraught families was disastrous. “The hospital came to us and told us to make our own arrangements,” said Bhirendra Kumar, whose COVID-19-positive father was admitted 10 days ago. “We’re not an oxygen company - how can we make our own arrangements?” Earlier in the day, the hospital’s chief executive, Sunil Saggar, choked back tears as he described the decision to discharge some patients because the lack of oxygen meant there was nothing his hospital could do to help. At the hospital’s oxygen supplier, Inox in Uttar Pradesh state about an hour from the capital, a line of a dozen trucks from cities across north India waited to fill up. Half a dozen drivers told Reuters they had been waiting for as long as three days to get their trucks filled, as surging demand from hospitals in the capital and elsewhere outstripped supply. Vakeel, who goes by one name, has been working as a driver for Inox since 1994. He said the level of demand was unprecedented. “Every hospital wants three or four times what they did before,” he said. ‘Learn to manage’ The Inox plant has seen frequent visits from government officials and police, some wielding assault rifles, ensuring that there is no disruption of any kind to supplies. An Uttar Pradesh police officer said they had been given orders to escort trucks to waiting hospitals. Welcome though the extra security is, a supervisor at the facility said it was impossible to meet demand. “Even if we build another five plants here we won’t be able to,” said the supervisor, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation. Eventually, a truck left the plant, reaching the New Delhi hospital late on Thursday evening. A relieved crowd of doctors and relatives who had gathered outside to wait for the truck’s arrival headed back in. “Some things in life are difficult,” hospital chief Saggar said as the needle on the hospital’s storage tank ticked back up from close to zero. “You have to learn to manage.” But the reprieve is only temporary. “Every day is like this now,” Saggar said. In less than 24 hours, the hospital will have to do it all over again, as the needle sinks back towards empty with new supplies, hopefully, on the way.
Family in India village hires helicopter to bring home first girl child born in 35 years
India|: Nagaur (Rajasthan): A family in a village in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district went all out to welcome the first girl child born in their house in 35 years and to mark the occasion, they hired a helicopter to bring the newborn daughter from the house of her maternal grandparents. Hanuman Prajapat’s wife Chuki Devi gave birth to their daughter Riya on March 3 and from there, she went to her parent’s house in Harsolav village with the baby. And on Wednesday, Hanuman decided to bring home his daughter from her maternal grandparents’ house by air. For the helicopter ride, the family spent around Rs 500,000 (Dhs24,500) which they managed to arrange by selling their crops. Madanlal Prajapat, the grandfather of Riya, said that there are still some people in the society who feel sad when a daughter is born in their house. “But I believe that daughters are far better than sons,” said Madanlal. “I had already decided 10 years ago that when the daughter is born at my home, she will be given a grand welcome and she will be brought by a helicopter.” “My family has started this practice and I hope that now other people of the village and society will also take inspiration and celebrate the birth of their daughters,” he added.
Fire in COVID-19 hospital kills 12 as India struggles with huge second wave
India|: Mumbai: India reported the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases for the second day on Friday, surpassing 330,000 new cases, as it struggles with a health system in crisis and beset by accidents. Deaths in the past 24 hours also jumped to a record 2,263, the health ministry said, while officials across northern and western India, including the capital, New Delhi, warned most hospitals were full and running out of oxygen. The spike in cases came as a fire in a hospital treating COVID-19 patients killed a dozen people on Friday, the latest accident to hit a facility in India crowded with people infected with the coronavirus. “Twelve people have died in the fire, according to the information we have right now,” a fire official said about the blaze that began in a critical care unit of the Vijay Vallabh hospital in a suburb of the city of Mumbai. On Wednesday, 22 COVID-19 patients died at a public hospital in Maharashtra state when their oxygen supply ran out after a leak in the tank. At least nine coronavirus patients died in a hospital fire in Mumbai on March 26. Daily infections hit 332,730 on Friday, up from 314,835 the previous day when India set a new record, surpassing one set by the United States in January of 297,430 new cases. The US tally has since fallen. Medical oxygen and beds have become scarce, with major hospitals putting up notices saying they have no room for any more patients and police being deployed to secure oxygen supplies. Max Healthcare, which runs a network of hospitals in northern and western India posted an appeal on Twitter on Friday for emergency supplies of oxygen at its facility in Delhi. “SOS - Less than an hour’s Oxygen supplies at Max Smart Hospital & Max Hospital Saket. Awaiting promised fresh supplies from INOX since 1 am,” the company said. Similar desperate calls from hospitals and ordinary people have been posted on social media for days this week across the country. Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan in the United States, said it was now as if there was no social safety net for Indians. “Everyone is fighting for their own survival and trying to protect their loved ones. This is hard to watch,” Mukherjee said. Mass funerals In the capital, New Delhi, people losing loved ones are turning to makeshift facilities that are undertaking mass burials and cremations as funeral services get swamped. Amid the despair, recriminations have begun. Health experts say India got complacent in the winter, when new cases were running at about 10,000 a day and seemed to be under control, and lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings. “Indians let down their collective guard. Instead of being bombarded with messages exhorting us to be vigilant, we heard self-congratulatory declarations of victory from our leaders, now cruelly exposed as mere self-assured hubris,” wrote Zarir F Udwadia, a pulmonologist and a member of the Maharashtra state government’s task force, in the Times of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ordered an extensive lockdown last year in the early stages of the pandemic. But it has been wary of the economic costs and upheaval to the lives of legions of migrant workers and day labourers of a reimposition of sweeping restrictions. A new more infectious variant of the virus, in particular a “double mutant” variant that originated in India, may have helped accelerate the surge, experts said. Canada banned flights from India, joining Britain, the UAE and Singapore blocking arrivals. Britain said it found 55 more cases of the Indian variant, known as B.1.617, in its latest weekly figure, taking the total of confirmed and probable cases of the variant there to 132. India, a major producer of vaccines, has begun a vaccination campaign but only a tiny fraction of the population has received a shot. Authorities have announced vaccines will be available to anyone over 18 from May 1, but experts say there will not be enough for the 600 million people who will become eligible. “It is tragic, the mismanagement. For a country known to be the pharmacy of the world, to have less than 1.5% of the population vaccinated is a failure difficult to fathom,” Kaushik Basu, a professor at Cornell University and a former economic adviser to the Indian government, said on Twitter.