COVID-19 battle puts India's government on 'war footing'

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of COVID-19 through India's vast countryside on Friday, as 4,000 people died for the third straight day and total infections crossed 24 million.

India has seen 3 consecutive days of 4,000 coronavirus deaths, as total infections exceed 24 million

A police officer guards an entrance of the Jama Masjid mosque during an Eid al-Fitr festival amid the COVID-19 pandemic in New Delhi on Friday. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the alarm over the rapid spread of COVID-19 through India's vast countryside on Friday, as 4,000 people died for the third straight day and total infections crossed 24 million.

India is in the grip of the highly transmissible B1617 variant of the coronavirus, first detected there and now appearing across the globe. Modi said his government was "on a war footing" to try to contain it.

"The outbreak is reaching rural areas with great speed," he said, addressing farmers in a virtual conference. "I want to once again warn all ... those who live in villages about corona."

Although about two-thirds of Indians live in rural towns and villages where health-care facilities are limited, it was the first time Modi has specifically referred to the virus's spread through the countryside since a second wave erupted in February.

"All departments of the government, all resources, our armed forces, our scientists, everyone is working day and night to counter COVID, together," he said.

Adjustments for Eid al-Fitr

Eid al-Fitr festivities to mark the end of Ramadan celebrated by about 200 million Muslims in India were generally subdued on Friday.

Most states have imposed full or partial lockdowns and many mosques were either shut or following physical distancing measures during prayers.

Indian police officers patrol during New Delhi's ongoing coronavirus lockdown on the first morning of Eid in the Muslim-majority neighbourhood of Nizamuddin West on Friday. (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

"The good thing is that everyone is following and celebrating Eid inside their homes," Maulana Khalid Rashid, a cleric in the city of Lucknow, told media.

Television news has broadcast images of families weeping over the dead in rural hospitals or camping in wards to tend the sick, while bodies have washed up in the Ganges as crematoriums are overwhelmed and wood for funeral pyres is in short supply.

The Lancet medical journal said restrictions on movement along with international support measures were urgently needed to stem "an unprecedented public health crisis."

Pressure for national lockdown

Modi has been under pressure to impose a national lockdown, though on Thursday the president of the Public Health Foundation of India questioned whether that would be effective in India.

"We recognize ... the anxieties that are displayed by international observers ... but you can't wrap all of India into one blanket," K. Srinath Reddy told a panel discussion.

Health workers wearing protective gear place a defunct ventilator machine in the corridor of a hospital in Amritsar, India, on Friday. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

Health ministry data recorded 4,000 deaths and 343,144 new infections over the last 24 hours, below last week's peak of 414,188.

Total infections since the pandemic struck India more than a year ago crossed 24 million, with 262,317 dead.

Experts say the true figures are much higher, with a lack of access to tests and treatment meaning many cases go uncounted.

Modi has faced criticism over his leadership during the pandemic, having allowed a huge Hindu gathering to take place in northern India in February and having addressed political rallies in April which were blamed for spreading the virus to rural areas.

Challenges with variant

The fast-spreading variant first found in India has caused alarm around the globe. It has led to big outbreaks in neighbouring states such as Nepal, and has also been detected far afield in Britain, the Americas and elsewhere in Asia.

A police officer stands guard along a road to enforce COVID-19 guidelines at a closed market area during an Eid festival in the old quarters of New Delhi on Friday. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific director of rights group Amnesty International, said the virus was "spreading and transcending borders at a frightening speed" and would hit the region's most marginalized populations hardest.

The catastrophe unfolding in India and Nepal should also be a warning to other countries in the region "to invest heavily in surge capacity for an emergency response," she said.

Modi allowed all Indian adults to request vaccines from May 1. But while India is the world's largest vaccine producer, the huge demand means stocks are low for vaccines at home and vaccinations have slowed.

Much more vaccination needed

As of Friday, India had fully vaccinated just over 39.4 million people, or around 2.9 per cent of the population. The government has promised to accelerate the vaccine program dramatically in coming months.

More than 2 billion doses of vaccine are likely to be available between August and December, government adviser V.K. Paul told reporters.

Those would include 750 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made by Serum Institute of India, as well as 550 million of Covaxin, developed by domestic producer Bharat Biotech.