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A relative of a person who died of COVID-19 during a cremation in New Delhi, India, on April 19, 2021. India's health system is collapsing under the worst surge in coronavirus infections that it has seen so far.

Manish Swarup/The Associated Press

Authorities said hospitals in the Indian capital of Delhi would start running out of medical oxygen by Wednesday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country faced a coronavirus “storm” overwhelming its health system.

Major government hospitals in the city of 20 million people had between eight and 24 hours’ worth of oxygen while some private ones had enough for just four to five hours, said Delhi’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia.

“If we don’t get enough supplies by tomorrow morning, it will be a disaster,” he said, calling for urgent help from the federal government.

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Mr. Modi said the federal government was working with local authorities nationwide to ensure adequate supplies of hospital beds, oxygen and antiviral drugs to combat a huge second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The situation was manageable until a few weeks ago. The second wave of infections has come like a storm,” he said in a televised address to the country, urging citizens to stay indoors and not panic amid India’s worst health emergency in memory.

“The central and state governments as well as the private sector are together trying to ensure oxygen supplies to those in need. We are trying to increase oxygen production and supply across the country,” he said.

Mr. Modi faces criticism that his administration lowered its guard when coronavirus infections fell to a multimonth low in February and allowed religious festivals and political rallies that he himself addressed to go ahead.

India, the world’s second-most populous country and currently the hardest hit by COVID-19, reported its worst daily death toll on Tuesday, with large parts of the country now under lockdown amid a fast-rising second surge of contagion.

The health ministry said 1,761 people had died in the past day, raising India’s toll to 180,530 – still well below the 567,538 reported in the United States, though experts believe India’s actual toll far exceeds the official count.

“While we are making all efforts to save lives, we are also trying to ensure minimal impact on livelihoods and economic activity,” Mr. Modi said, urging state governments to use lockdowns only as a last resort.

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DELHI RUNNING OUT OF OXYGEN

One local hospital with more than 500 COVID-19 patients on oxygen has enough supplies for only four hours, Delhi’s Health Minister Satyendar Jain said late on Tuesday.

Tata Group, one of India’s biggest business conglomerates, said it was importing 24 cryogenic containers to transport liquid oxygen and help ease the shortage in the country.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection has said all travel should be avoided to India, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled a visit to New Delhi that had been scheduled for next week, and his government said it will add India to its travel “red list.”

Several major cities are already reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than those in official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, the media and a review of government data.

Delhi reported more than 28,000 fresh infections on Tuesday, the highest daily rise ever, with one in three people tested returning a positive result.

“The huge pressure on hospitals and the health system right now will mean that a good number who would have recovered, had they been able to access hospital services, may die,” said Gautam I. Menon, a professor at Ashoka University.

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On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 259,170 new infections nationwide – a sixth day over 200,000 and getting closer to the peak of nearly 300,000 seen in the U.S. in January.

Total coronavirus cases in India are now at 15.32 million, second only to the U.S., with epidemiologists saying many more infectious new variants of the virus were one of the main factors behind the latest surge in cases.

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