Hospitals will get medical oxygen from armed forces reserves with retired medical military personnel joining Covid-19 health facilities to help the country as it tries to battle an unprecedented crisis.

A general view of the mass cremation of those who died from coronavirus at a crematorium in New Delhi, India on April 26, 2021.
A general view of the mass cremation of those who died from coronavirus at a crematorium in New Delhi, India on April 26, 2021. (Reuters)

India has ordered its armed forces to help tackle surging new coronavirus infections that are overwhelming hospitals, as countries including Turkey, China, Britain, Germany and the United States offered to send medical aid.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said on Monday that oxygen would be released to hospitals from armed forces reserves and retired medical military personnel would join Covid-19 health facilities.

And where possible, military medical infrastructure will be made available to civilians, a government statement said, as new coronavirus infections hit a record peak for a fifth day.

"Air, Rail, Road & Sea; Heaven & earth are being moved to overcome challenges thrown up by this wave of COVID19," Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Twitter.

Modi on Sunday urged all citizens to get vaccinated and to exercise caution amid what he called a "storm" of infections, while hospitals and doctors in some northern states posted urgent notices saying they were unable to cope with the influx.

READ MORE: India censors critical tweets as Covid-19 crisis escalates

Mass cremations

In some of the worst-hit cities, bodies were being burnt in makeshift facilities offering mass cremations.

The southern state of Karnataka, home to the tech city of Bengaluru, ordered a 14-day lockdown from Tuesday, joining the western industrial state of Maharashtra, where lockdowns run until May 1, although some states were also set to lift lockdown measures this week.

The patchy curbs, complicated by local elections and mass festival gatherings, could prompt breakouts elsewhere, as infections rose by 352,991 in the last 24 hours, with crowded hospitals running out of oxygen supplies and beds.

"Currently the hospital is in beg-and-borrow mode and it is an extreme crisis situation," said a spokesperson for the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in the capital, New Delhi.

READ MORE:In pictures: Indian crematoriums burn non-stop amid deadly second wave

Hospital fire

Following a fire at a hospital in the western diamond industry hub of Surat, five Covid-19 patients died after being moved to other hospitals that lacked space in their intensive care units, a municipal official told Reuters.

Television channel NDTV broadcast images of three health workers in the eastern state of Bihar pulling a body along the ground on its way to cremation, as stretchers ran short.

"If you've never been to a cremation, the smell of death never leaves you," Vipin Narang, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, said on Twitter.

"My heart breaks for all my friends and family in Delhi and India going through this hell."

READ MORE: Hospitals turn away patients as Covid-19 'tsunami' hits India  

International aid

On Sunday, President Joe Biden said the United States will send raw materials for vaccines, medical equipment and protective gear. 

Germany joined a growing list of countries pledging supplies.

In Moscow, which expects 50 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to be made each month in India this summer, a Kremlin spokesperson expressed concern over the situation.

Turkey on Monday also offered to help India. 

India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has an official tally of 17.31 million infections and 195,123 deaths, after 2,812 deaths overnight, Health Ministry data showed, although health experts say the figures probably run higher.

The surge in infections hit oil prices amid worries about a fall in fuel demand in the world's third-biggest oil importer.

READ MORE:India: the deadliest wave 

Modi slammed for rallies and Kumbh Mela festival

Several cities have ordered curfews, while police enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. 

Politicians, especially Modi, have faced criticism for holding rallies during state election campaigns that draw thousands into packed stadiums.

About 8.6 million voters were expected to cast ballots on Monday in the eastern state of West Bengal, in the final phases of a contest set to wrap up this week. 

Also voting in local elections was the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has been reporting an average of 30,000 infections a day.

Modi's plea on vaccinations came after inoculations peaked at 4.5 million doses on April 5, but have since averaged about 2.7 million a day, government figures show.

Virologists said more infectious variants of the virus, including an Indian one, have fuelled the resurgence.

The government told people to stay indoors and follow hygiene protocols. "Please don't invite people into your home... It has become clearer that the transmissibility of this virus is faster," said senior health official Vinod Kumar Paul.

READ MORE: Modi: India shaken by coronavirus 'storm'

Demand for vaccines 

Vaccine demand has outpaced supply as the inoculation campaign widened this month, while companies struggle to boost output, partly because of a shortage of raw material and a fire at a facility making the AstraZeneca dose.

However, the federal government will not import vaccines itself but expects states and companies to do so instead, in a step aimed at backing domestic manufacturers, two government officials told Reuters.

Neighbouring Bangladesh sealed its border with India for 14 days, its Foreign Ministry said, though trade will continue. 

Air travel has been suspended since Bangladesh imposed a lockdown on April 14 to combat record infections and deaths.

READ MORE: India battles record-high Covid wave as nations pledge aid – latest updates

Source: Reuters