India's crematoriums overwhelmed as virus 'swallows people'

Experts say the toll could be hugely outnumbered as suspected cases are not accounted for and many deaths from infection are due to the underlying conditions.

The crisis in India is most visceral in the cemeteries and crematoria and in heartbreaking images of wheezing patients dying of oxygen deprivation on their way to hospitals.

The burial sites in the Indian capital New Delhi have run out of space and bright, glowing pyres light up the night sky in other hard-hit cities.

In downtown Bhopal, some crematoria have increased their capacity from dozens of pyrenees to over 50. Still, officials say there are still hours of waiting.

At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, although government figures across the city of 1.8 million put the total virus deaths at just 10.

“The virus is swallowing people in our city like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, a local official.

The unprecedented onslaught of bodies has forced the crematorium to skip individual ceremonies and exhausting rituals that Hindus believe will free the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

“We only burn bodies when they arrive,” said Sharma. “It’s like we’re in the middle of a war.”

The gravedigger at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people were buried during the pandemic, said more bodies are arriving than last year. “I’m afraid we will run out of space very soon,” said Mohammad Shameem.

Equally grim is the situation in excruciatingly crowded hospitals, where desperate people die in line, sometimes in the streets outside, waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are struggling to expand intensive care units and replenish dwindling oxygen supplies. Hospitals and patients alike struggle to source scarce medical equipment that is selling at an exponential mark.

The crisis stands in direct contrast to government claims that “no one in the country has been left without oxygen,” said Indian Attorney General Tushar Mehta before the Delhi Supreme Court on Saturday.

The collapse is a grave failure for a country whose prime minister declared victory over COVID-19 as recently as January and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy,” a global vaccine manufacturer and model for other developing countries.

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