Skyrocketing COVID cases and a lack of oxygen turn India into "a living hell"

India sets new COVID-19 global record
India sets new COVID-19 global record 02:10

Last Updated Apr 23, 2021 9:16 AM EDT

India is fast becoming the next epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The world's second-most populous country reported more than 332,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday. That's over 20,000 more than were reported the previous day, when India set a new record for cases recorded in a single day, surpassing a previous high seen in the U.S. in January.

As CBS News' Lucy Craft reports, India is struggling to cope with the skyrocketing infections and a daunting shortage of medical oxygen. Anxious and exhausted, many citizens say they've lost count of the friends and family sickened by the virus. Old and young, rich and poor, no one in the country of more than 1.3 billion people has been spared as its health care system buckles under the strain.

Even with mass cremations at makeshift facilities, India's undertakers can't keep up with the pace of death as COVID outbreaks explode across the country. Workers say they've never seen anything like it, with even young children among the victims of this devastating second wave.

About half of India's states are under varying degrees of lockdown.

But the country's health care system is collapsing with widespread shortages of oxygen, medicines, ventilators and hospital beds, independent journalist Smita Sharma told CBS News.

"I think there's one way to describe it: It's a living hell. It's a nightmare," she said from her home in New Delhi. "It's traumatic for all of us. We are all very, very scared at this point in time."

Oxygen tanker leakage at hospital in Nashik
An oxygen tank is seen leaking outside a hospital in Nashik, Maharashtra state, India, on April 21, 2021, where 22 COVID-19 patients died due to to the leak cutting oxygen supplies to their ventilators. ANI/Reuters

Maharashtra has been the hardest hit, but it's just one of a majority of India's 29 states facing acute shortages of medical oxygen. On Wednesday, 22 patients died at a hospital in Maharashtra when an oxygen leak on an external storage tank cut off the supply to ventilators. 

At least two hospitals in the capital New Delhi completely ran out of oxygen late on Thursday, and four others issued desperate appeals to the government, warning they had only a few hours-worth left, with hundreds of COVID-19 patients relying on the supply.

"Less than an hour's oxygen supplies," Max Healthcare, a group of top private hospitals in India, said in a series of SOS tweets on Thursday, tagging Prime Minister Modi and other senior government ministers. Emergency supplies came through, but only enough to get them through a couple more hours.

A politician, himself hospitalized in the capital with the virus, delivered a breathless video message from behind an oxygen mask, pleading on Twitter for help for himself and others at the facility with a warning that there was only enough oxygen left for three hours.

"A lot of people are dependent on oxygen and without oxygen, these people will die just like fish die in the absence of water," said Saurabh Bharadwaj in the video. "This is a time for all to come together to work."

FILE PHOTO: Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) get treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) hospital, amidst the spread of the disease in New Delhi
Patients suffering from the coronavirus disease get treatment at the casualty ward in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) hospital in New Delhi, India, April 15, 2021. DANISH SIDDIQUI/REUTERS

India's prime minister, whose party declared the virus "defeated" in February and lauded him for delivering the purported victory after the first wave of infections was quashed, is now being criticized for opening the country back up too soon, and for mixed messaging.

Prime Minister Narenda Modi, who this week said India had been hit by a COVID "storm," has been rebuked for allowing mass political rallies to continue — often with lax antiviral measures — and for permitting the traditional Hindu bathing festival, the Kumbh Mela, to go ahead just weeks ago, drawing millions of pilgrims to the Ganges River.

India Hindu Festival
People participate in the ongoing Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar, India, on April 12, 2021. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty

It has now been deemed a super-spreader event.

Dr. Abhishek Rimal, the Red Cross' Asia Pacific Coordinator for Emergency Health, told CBS News that virus mutations and pandemic fatigue could make India the world's worst COVID hotspot.

"At the current pace, if we don't put [in place] major public health measures to bring this down, it will definitely become the new epicenter in days to come," he said.

India's mass-vaccination program is running behind schedule, and even before this wave peaks, experts are already bracing for a possible third wave of infections that many fear could strain the country's health care system even further.

Amid the strain on India's health care facilities, tragedy struck at another hospital in the beleaguered state of Maharashtra on Friday as a fire tore through the facility, killing 14 coronavirus patients. 

Patients are evacuated after hospital catches fire in Virar, on the outskirts of Mumbai
A frontline worker ignites the funeral pyre of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient who passed away after a hospital caught fire in Virar, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, April 23, 2021. FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/REUTERS

The victims were being treated in the ICU of Vijay Vallabh Hospital in Virar, 43 miles from Mumbai, when the fire broke out at 3 a.m. on Friday. Smoke filled the ICU on the second floor of the four-storey hospital before the flames could be extinguished, resulting in the deaths.  

About 90 patients were in the facility at the time of the blaze, the hospital said, adding that the cause wasn't yet known. An investigation had been launched.   

CBS News' Arshad R. Zargar in New Delhi contributed to this report.