India's total Covid-19 cases passed 18 million on Thursday after another world record daily infection as gravediggers worked around the clock burying victims and rows of funeral pyres were built in parks and parking lots.
India reported 379,257 new Covid-19 cases and 3,645 new deaths on Thursday, according to health ministry data. It was the country's highest number of deaths reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
The world's second-most populous nation is in deep crisis with its hospitals and morgues overwhelmed and healthcare professionals struggling to cope with the pandemic.
Mumbai gravedigger Sayyed Munir Kamruddin said he and his colleagues were working non-stop to bury Covid-19 victims.
"I'm not scared of Covid, I've worked with courage. It's all about courage, not about fear," said the 52-year-old. "This is our only job. Getting the body, removing it from the ambulance, and then burying it."
Each day, thousands of Indians frantically search for hospital beds and life saving oxygen for sick relatives, using social media apps and personal contacts. When hospital beds become available, especially in intensive care units, they are snapped up within minutes.
"The ferocity of the second wave did take everyone by surprise," K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, was quoted as saying in the Indian Express newspaper.
"While we were all aware of second waves in other countries, we had vaccines at hand, and no indications from modeling exercises suggested the scale of the surge."
India's military has begun transporting key medical supplies, such as oxygen cannisters, across the country and will open its healthcare facilities to civilians. Hotels and railway coaches have been converted into critical care facilities to make up for the shortage of hospital beds.
India's best hope to curb its second deadly wave of Covid-19 was to vaccinate its vast population, said experts, and on Wednesday the country opened registrations for everyone above the age of 18 to be given jabs from Saturday.
But although it is the world's biggest producer of vaccines, India does not have the stocks for the estimated 800 million people now eligible for inoculation.
Many people who tried to sign up for the vaccinations said they failed, complaining on social media that they could not get a slot or they simply could not get online to register as the website repeatedly crashed.
"Statistics indicate that far from crashing or performing slowly, the system is performing without any glitches," the government said in a statement late on Wednesday.
The government said more than 8 million people had registered for the vaccinations, but it was not immediately clear how many had got slots.
Deaths likely under-reported
Only about 9% of India's 1.4 billion population have received one dose since the vaccination campaign began in January with health workers and then the elderly.
While India's second wave of infections has overwhelmed the country's health system, its official death rate is below that of Brazil and the United States.
India has reported 147.2 deaths per million population, according to the Reuters global Covid-19 tracker, a much lower figure than Brazil and the United States, which reported 1,800 and 1,700 deaths per million population respectively.
However, medical experts believe India's true Covid-19 numbers may be 5 to 10 times greater than the official tally.
"India's Covid outbreak is a humanitarian crisis," U.S. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.
"I'm leading a letter to @moderna_tx, @pfizer, and @jnjnews to find out what steps they're taking to expand global access to their vaccines to save lives and prevent variants from spreading around the world."
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory on Wednesday against travel to India because of the pandemic and advised its citizens to leave the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticised for allowing massive political rallies and religious festivals which have been super spreader events in recent weeks.
More than 8.4 million eligible voters are set to vote on Thursday in the last phase of an eight-part election in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, even as the state witnesses a record rise in coronavirus cases.
"The people of this country are entitled to a full and honest account of what led more than a billion people into a catastrophe," Vikram Patel, The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in The Hindu newspaper.
Aid starts arriving
India expects close to 550 oxygen generating plants to come in from all over the world as aid starts pouring in, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on Thursday.
Two planes from Russia, carrying 20 oxygen concentrators, 75 ventilators, 150 bedside monitors, and medicines totalling 22 metric tonnes, have arrived in the capital.
The United States is sending supplies worth more than $100 million to India, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday. It said the supplies will begin arriving on Thursday.
The United States also has redirected its own order of AstraZeneca manufacturing supplies to India, which will allow it to make over 20 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine, according to the White House.
India will receive a first batch of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19 on May 1. Russia's RDIF sovereign wealth fund, which is marketing Sputnik V globally, has already signed agreements with five leading Indian manufacturers for over 850 million doses of the vaccine a year.
Bangladesh on Thursday said it will send about 10,000 vials of injectable anti-viral, oral anti-viral, 30,000 PPE kits, and several thousand zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other necessary tablets to India.
Germany will send 120 ventilators to India on Saturday, followed by a mobile oxygen production facility next week, its defence ministry said.