India passes 300,000 Covid-19 deaths

India said Monday it had passed more than 300,000 coronavirus deaths, the third country after the United States and Brazil to hit the figure as it battles a huge wave of infections.

This picture taken on May 8, 2021 shows employees of Michael Undertakers and Ambulance Services (L), seen wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, as relatives attend the burial of a Covid-19 coronavirus victim at a Christian cemetery in Pali village near Faridabad. – As India grapples with a mounting coronavirus death toll, new services ranging from specialist funeral firms, Bollywood film set cleaners and low-budget deliverymen are easing the pain and making a living. Sajjad Hussain / AFP

The South Asian nation has been hitting record single-day rises in infections and fatalities in recent weeks, with its healthcare system overwhelmed by the Covid-19 wave.

India's toll now stands at 303,720 after adding 50,000 deaths in just under two weeks, as the total number of infections rose above 26.7 million, health ministry data showed.

It reported 4,454 Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, the second-highest daily toll since reaching a record 4,529 on Wednesday.

The continued high number of deaths came as infections fell in major cities, including the capital New Delhi and financial hub Mumbai, where lockdowns have been imposed to stem the spread of the virus.

"Deaths always will lag cases… People who have been diagnosed with infection now will go into hospital, and then a small number of them will die but that will be later," Ashoka University biology professor Gautam Menon told AFP Monday.

Many experts also believe the real toll is much higher, particularly as the disease spreads into rural areas where the majority of the 1.3 billion population lives and where health facilities and record-keeping is poor.

The wave has overwhelmed hospitals with patients, and also led to a severe shortage of oxygen and critical drugs.

Harrowing images of long queues for funerals and makeshift pyres have also emerged from crematoriums and cemeteries.

Bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims have meanwhile been seen floating down the holy Ganges river or buried in shallow graves.

"We are seeing the bodies along the river Ganges which don't seem to be recorded as Covid deaths but are very likely to be Covid deaths," Menon said.

"While everyone agrees that there is death undercounting, the question is — what is the extent of the undercounting and has it consistently been a large figure, or has it only gone up… over the past three weeks to a month."

Experts warned that religious festivals and packed state election rallies held earlier in the year could have led to virus "superspreader" events and that mass vaccinations are the only long-term solution.

India has administered just over 196 million shots since mid-January, but experts say the programme needs to be significantly stepped up.

The country, home to the world's largest vaccine maker, has halted exports of vaccines to meet local demand.

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