Devastating virus surge spreads impact into India’s politics

National and World

Election officials sit wearing masks and face shields during the counting of votes of Assam state assembly election in Gauhati, India, Sunday, May 2, 2021. With Indian hospitals struggling to secure a steady supply of oxygen, and more COVID-19 patients dying amid the shortages, a court in New Delhi said it would start punishing government officials for failing to deliver the life-saving items. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

NEW DELHI (AP) — India recorded 368,147 new coronavirus cases on Monday and 3,417 deaths as a catastrophic surge ripples through the country.

The latest numbers came after leaders of 13 opposition parties penned a letter to urge the government to launch a free vaccination drive as well as ensure uninterrupted flow of oxygen to all hospitals. Several hospital authorities over the weekend sought court intervention over oxygen supplies in New Delhi, where a lockdown has been extended by a week to contain the wave of infections.

“Water has gone above the head. Enough is enough,” said New Delhi High Court, adding it would start punishing government officials if supplies of oxygen allocated to hospitals were not delivered.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been severely criticized over the handling of the surge, which has pushed India’s already fragile and underfunded health system to the brink. Massive election rallies organized by the Bharatiya Janata Party and other parties as well as a giant Hindu festival on the banks of the Ganges may have exacerbated the spread, experts said, adding that new variants could also be increasing cases.

Modi’s party on Sunday suffered a resounding election defeat in a key state, West Bengal, failing to dislodge its firebrand chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. The BJP retained power in northeastern Assam state but lost in two southern states.

While the four states were already stiff election challenges for the BJP apart from the pandemic, analysts say the results weaken Modi’s position as surging infections cripple the already fragile health system.

Meanwhile, the world’s biggest cricket tournament, the Indian Premier League, released a statement saying Monday’s match between the Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kolkata Knight Riders would be rescheduled after two players tested positive. The two players have self-isolated and medical personnel were tracing their contacts.

Despite rising cases, the league has held matches every evening behind closed doors since it kicked off in April.

India has confirmed 19.9 million cases of infection since the start of the pandemic, behind only the U.S., which counts more than 32.4 million. More than 218,000 people in India have died from COVID-19, according to the health ministry. Both figures are thought to be vast undercounts.

India opened its vaccination campaign to people ages 18-44 on Saturday, a mammoth task being undermined by limited supplies. India is the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, but even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering. Since January, 10% of Indians have received one dose, but only around 1.5% have received both required doses.

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