India will let all citizens over 18 have COVID-19 vaccinations from May 1, the government said on Monday, as the health system creaked under the weight of record-high cases and the capital region of New Delhi ordered a lockdown.
Facing growing criticism over its handling of the second wave of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration said vaccine manufacturers would have to supply 50% of doses to the federal government and the rest to state governments and the open market at a pre-declared price.
Daily COVID-19 cases in India jumped a record 273,810 on Monday, and deaths rose a record 1,619 to 178,769.
Hospitals have a shortage of beds, oxygen and key medicines, and infections have passed 15 million, the world’s second highest total after the United States.
The New Delhi region ordered a six-day lockdown starting Monday night after its chief minister said the health system was unable to take more patients in big numbers.
Criticism of Modi’s administration has increased as he continued to address large state election rallies and let Hindu devotees congregate for a festival.
New Delhi joined 13 other Indian states that have decided to impose restrictions, curfews or lockdowns in their cities, including the richest state of Maharashtra and Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the industrial city of Ahmedabad is also grappling with a shortage of beds.
Hong Kong said late on Sunday that the Asian financial hub will suspend flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines from Tuesday for two weeks.
Britain has put India on a travel “red-list” and Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled a planned trip to India next week.
As of Monday, India had administered nearly 123.9 million vaccine doses – the most in the world after the United States and China, though it ranks much lower in per capita vaccination.
The current vaccination process is controlled by the federal government.
Liberalising it would augment vaccine production and availability, and attract new domestic and international vaccine manufacturers, the government said in its statement.
“It would also make pricing, procurement, eligibility and administration of vaccines open and flexible, allowing all stakeholders the flexibility to customise to local needs and dynamics,” it said.
Gas and firewood furnaces at a crematorium in the western Indian state of Gujarat have been running so long without a break during the COVID-19 pandemic that metal parts have begun to melt.
And with hospitals full and oxygen and medicines in short supply in an already creaky health system, several major cities are reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data.
Reliable data is at the heart of any government response to the pandemic, without which planning for hospital vacancies, oxygen and medicine becomes difficult, experts say.
Government officials say the mismatch in death tallies may be caused by several factors, including over-caution.
A senior state health official said the increase in numbers of cremations had been due to bodies being cremated using COVID protocols “even if there is 0.1% probability of the person being positive”.
Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said many parts of India were in “data denial”.
In Surat, Gujarat’s second largest city, Sailor’s Kurukshetra crematorium and a second crematorium known as Umra have cremated more than 100 bodies a day under COVID protocols over the last week, far in excess of the city’s official daily COVID death toll of around 25, according to interviews with workers.
Prashant Kabrawala, trustee of Narayan Trust, which manages a third city crematorium called Ashwinikumar, declined to provide the number of bodies received under COVID protocols, but said cremations there had tripled in recent weeks.