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U.S. aid arrives in COVID-battered India as vaccination centers run out of shots and thousands gasp for air

Biden to restrict travel from India as cases surge
Biden to ban most travel from India over record COVID-19 wave 04:25

New Delhi — The first shipment of emergency medical aid supplies from the United States arrived in India on Friday as the country continued battling an explosion of coronavirus cases that has strained its health care system to breaking point. A U.S. military transport plane carrying more than 400 oxygen cylinders, nearly one million rapid coronavirus test kits and other supplies landed in Delhi on Friday morning.

But as mass vaccination centers were forced to close without any doses to stick in arms, and people continued to die without oxygen at jam-packed hospitals, the aid from the U.S. and other countries that's started to pour in is like a Band-Aid for a severed leg.

"The United States stands with India as we fight the COVID-19 pandemic together," said the U.S. Embassy in India in a tweet. 

India's External Affairs Ministry thanked the U.S. for the contributions, which were the first step toward fulfilling President Joe Biden's pledge earlier this week to support India in its "time of need… Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic."

Another day of record infections

There's no sign that the devastating second wave of coronavirus infections in India is abating yet.

The country has been reporting an average of more than 350,000 new cases every day for the past week. On Friday there was yet another all-time high of 386,452 new cases confirmed, taking the total caseload to more than 18.7 million. 

The dizzying rate of infections has swamped the country's health care resources. Hospital beds, oxygen, coronavirus drugs and vaccines are all in desperately short supply. Many of the roughly 3,500 people dying with the disease every day are unable to even access treatment, as the hospitals are full. 

What it's like living in the middle of India's deadly COVID-19 wave 07:40

While India's official COVID-19 death toll is just over 200,000, epidemiologist Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan told CBS News' Holly Williams on Friday that he believes the real figure could be six times higher that that – twice that of the U.S.

Workers at some crematoriums in the capital of Delhi and other hard-hit states, including Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, have been working around the clock to deal with the high number of dead. Smoke from the non-stop funeral pyres is choking Delhi's air.

"Right now, you don't need the numbers," Laxminarayan told CBS News of the official death toll. "You just need to go out in Delhi… the smoke is thick in the air. It's just constant."

Shortages of everything

The United States joined dozens of other countries, including the U.K., Russia, Romania, Ireland, and the UAE to start sending in medical aid this week. But despite tons of supplies hitting the ground - and the Indian government's repeated assurances about sufficient medical oxygen supplies - there has been no significant improvement in the shortages.

Social media platforms in India were still dominated on Friday by SOS messages – normal citizens begging for help to find hospital beds, oxygen refills and key coronavirus drugs like remdesivir and favipiravir. 

An army of "COVID Warrior" has stepped up to try to connect people with the resources they need, but with government helplines and supply chains breaking down, many of the volunteers are now reporting fatigue and a sense of helplessness as they're simply unable to assist the desperate people reaching out. 

Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) receive treatment inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi
Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) receive treatment inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi, India, April 29, 2021. DANISH SIDDIQUI/REUTERS

COVID-19 vaccines are also in short supply. The government widened its vaccination program this week as deaths and cases mounted, making all adults officially eligible. But even the registration system struggled to cope with the demand as the online portal got 2.7 million hits per minute on Wednesday, soon after inoculation was opened up to all over-18s.

Officials in the country's richest state of Maharashtra - the most-severely impacted by this second wave - have said they will not invite 18 to 44-year-olds for vaccination until they get another 3 million doses, despite the national government's official policy making all adults eligible.

On Friday, all major vaccination centers in the tech-hub of Mumbai, Mahrashtra's state capital, were shuttered for three days as they simply didn't have any doses to administer.

Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal told people, meanwhile, not to bother even lining up for shots, as no vaccines were available in the capital, either.

Even truth is hard to find

The Indian government, however, has continued to deny that there's a deadly oxygen shortage. 

"There is no shortage of medical oxygen in the country, supply [is] being augmented for COVID-19 relief," the federal government told the Indian supreme court on Friday, according to Indian news network NDTV. 

The top court warned the government on Friday, meanwhile, against censuring information and grievances posted by Indian citizens on social media about the official coronavirus response. 

"It is of grave concern to me as a citizen or judge. If citizens communicate their grievances on social media, we do not want to clamp down on information. Let us hear the voices of citizens," Justice DY Chandrahud said at a hearing on Friday.

People cremate their relatives, who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium ground in New Delhi
People cremate their relatives, who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, April 28, 2021. DANISH SIDDIQUI/REUTERS

The court's warning came a week after the Indian government asked Twitter to remove dozens of tweets criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration over its handling of the pandemic. Earlier this week, Facebook briefly blocked the hashtag "#ResignModi," hiding hundreds of posts critical of Modi's handling of the crisis. 

"We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it," Facebook said later. 

"The government has not issued any direction to remove this hashtag. Facebook has also clarified that it was removed by mistake," the Indian government said in a statement. 

Last week, the Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, insisted there was no oxygen shortage there and ordered criminal cases against hospitals and people who he said were spreading "rumors" about oxygen shortages.

But several hospitals and citizens in the state have continued to flag oxygen shortages, and news reports from Uttar Padesh suggest the problems are rooted in far more than rumors.

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