In India, people are begging for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders on social media

As Indians scramble to secure oxygen and public health experts warn infections aren't likely to fall much over the next few weeks, India's devastating second wave is being blamed on several factors, including mass gatherings and complacency about public health guidelines.

Mass gatherings, premature optimism blamed for collapsing health-care system

Relatives of a COVID-19 patient who died mourn outside a government hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Tuesday. Coronavirus cases in India are surging faster than anywhere else in the world, and many people are turning to social media to find medical supplies for loved ones. (Ajit Solanki/The Associated Press)

The frantic calls for life-saving oxygen or the antiviral drug remdesivir come fast and furious on social media, as India grapples with a deepening COVID-19 crisis and dwindling medical supplies.

"My aunt has serious breathing issue ... Pls help us to arrange oxygen cylinder," one tweet reads.

"Serious #covid19 patient in #Delhi with oxygen level 62 needs hospital bed," another user wrote.

"Urgently need Remdasivir [sic] injection," reads another.

Social media crowdsourcing is the only place to turn for so many Indians struggling to save their friends and loved ones from the ferocious second wave of the pandemic, even as a black market with exorbitant drug prices starts to flourish.

Others have no choice but to make the rounds to hospitals in New Delhi, the country's capital, pleading for a bed.

India has now posted seven consecutive record-high days of new infections topping 300,000, and Wednesday's death toll rose by 3,263, but the official numbers are seen as an underestimation by health experts. The devastating second wave of the pandemic in the country is being blamed on several factors, including mass gatherings and complacency about public health guidelines.

COVID-19 patients breathe with the help of oxygen provided by a gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside in Ghaziabad, India, on Wednesday. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

One woman, speaking to a local television crew, broke down in tears waiting in the heat for a hospital bed for her father outside a New Delhi hospital.

"Please help me, please. My father is dying, I can't afford another loss," she cried. "Yesterday, I lost my younger brother."

Another man, Animesh Kumar, explained how he had taken his relative — sick and struggling to breathe from COVID-19 — to two hospitals and was refused admission both times.

"Oxygen in the ambulance is also running out and his condition is quite serious," Kumar said. "We are standing here without oxygen, and a patient is in the middle of the road, without any hope."

How India got here

Vaishali Sood, the health editor for online newspaper, couldn't stop her voice from breaking as she described the toll the virus was taking on India.

"It's heartbreaking," Sood told CBC News.

"Every family member, every friend, every colleague we speak with has had a loved one who's suffered or is suffering and is desperately in search of oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators, testing, hospital beds," she said. "At it continuously and with very little luck.

"It's a tragedy unfolding in the national capital right now."

Sood said what pains her is that the deep misery enveloping the country was avoidable.

"Public health experts were warning that India would see another wave as early as January and February," when new infections hovered around 10,000 a day, she said. "There were alarm bells going off."

But the warnings didn't break through. "There was a sense in India that the pandemic was over."

In January, the Reserve Bank of India announced gleefully in an economic forecast that the country had "bent [the COVID-19 curve] like Beckham," referring to the 2002 movie, and by mid-March, India's health minister declared the country to be in "the endgame" of the pandemic — just as confirmed cases were again starting to rise.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when the World Health Organization (WHO) said a "perfect storm" of conditions led to India's crippling second wave: mass gatherings, more contagious virus variants and low vaccination rates.

Worshippers take part in the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival along the Ganges River in Haridwar, India, on March 11, with little enforcement of public health guidelines. Hundreds of people later tested positive for COVID-19. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Election rallies with thousands of people in several large states multiplied in March and April, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi appearing in West Bengal for a speech as late as April 17, maskless and boasting about the huge crowds.

The massive religious festival, Kumbh Mela, was also allowed to take place for weeks with little enforcement of public health guidelines, as millions of people congregated in the northern Indian city of Haridwar and took a dip in the Ganges River. Hundreds later tested positive.

Official figures seen as vastly underestimated 

Public health experts warn that the record-high infection numbers India is posting daily are only a fraction of the true picture of how COVID-19 is ravaging the country, pushing its health-care system to the brink of collapse.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., pointed to the very high test positivity rate — close to 20 per cent nationally and as high as 36 per cent in Delhi — in estimating that the true caseload "may easily be above a million infections a day."

The same goes for the data on deaths, he said, which officially sit at about 3,000 a day but which could be closer to five times that, he said.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health in Providence, R.I., says it's misguided to think that the COVID-19 situation in India will improve soon, predicting it will take closer to four or six weeks before infection rates start to decline. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

Jha said the coronavirus variant wreaking the most havoc in India is the one first detected in the U.K., B117. But there is less reliable data tracking the potentially more contagious double mutation first identified in India, he said.

The WHO has confirmed that the latest variant, which is being monitored as a variant of interest, has now been detected in at least 17 other countries, including Canada.

The lack of adequate genomic sequencing to identify what variants are at play, which in India is done in less than one per cent of all cases, is part of the problem, he said.

"It helps you really track where things are going and how things are spreading in a way that India was pretty blind to," Jha said.

"It was undeniable that India was on the verge of a catastrophic wave of this infection, and yet we didn't see much policy action until well into April."

More vaccine doses needed in global effort

Jha said the sense that the situation might improve soon is also misguided.

"Things are not going to start getting better in the next week," he said, predicting it will take closer to four or six difficult weeks before infection rates start to come down.

A man unloads empty oxygen cylinders for refill at an oxygen supply agency in Siliguri, India, on Wednesday, as new daily COVID-19 cases continue to top 300,000 in the country and oxygen supplies run low. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

As crucial medical supplies touch down in India, with the promise of more aid this week from other countries, Jha stressed that vaccine doses need to be included in the global effort to help in the long term.

U.S. President Joe Biden has announced he intends to send vaccines to help boost India's vaccination rate. Currently, just under nine per cent of the population have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Canada has pledged $10 million through the Canadian Red Cross to the Indian Red Cross to help with medical supplies and ambulance services.

"In no way is India anywhere near out of the woods," Jha warned, adding that the impact on the country's already fragile health-care system will linger even after cases start to decrease.

'We underestimated the virus' 

That weighs on Dr. Sumit Ray, a critical-care specialist and the medical superintendent of New Delhi's Holy Family Hospital.

His voice was weary as he described a disaster barely averted last week, when his hospital was only 30 minutes away from completely running out of oxygen.

WATCH | Hospitals in India running out of oxygen supplies:

Hospitals in India are running out of oxygen supplies as COVID-19 cases soar

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Hospitals in India are running out of oxygen supplies, as the country reports another 332,730 COVID-19 infections, setting a record for the second day in a row.

He paced in his intensive care unit and worked his cellphone, begging for more oxygen supplies to be diverted his way.

"I cannot tell you how scary that is," Ray told CBC News. Out of 385 patients at the hospital, some 350 are on oxygen.

"Just imagine how many patients we would have lost if that happened."

As overflow stretchers line the corridors of the hospital, there's a daily battle to prioritize patients, Ray said.

"We don't have enough ventilators. We have to triage: Who is salvageable and who is not."

But mostly, Ray said, he is worried about what's to come.

Funeral pyres are prepared for those who died from COVID-19 during a mass cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi on Monday. Public health experts say there's evidence that deaths from the disease are being underestimated in India. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

"We underestimated the virus, we really did. As a country," he said.

"If the numbers don't come down, no health-care system can handle this," Ray said, shaking his head. "No health-care system."


Salimah Shivji


Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.