India records 200,000 deaths with coronavirus

India thought it had weathered the worst of the pandemic, but the virus is surging and systems are beginning to collapse

The number of people who have died with coronavirus in India has passed 200,000.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare gave an updated official figure of 201,187, although many believe the real figure is much higher.

This means there were 3,293 deaths reported in the most recent 24-hour period, as the world's second-largest country endures its darkest chapter of the pandemic yet.

Also on Wednesday, the country reported 362,757 new infections - another global record, taking its total over 17.9 million.

India is the fourth country to pass 200,000 deaths - behind the US, Brazil and Mexico.

The first coronavirus-related death was reported in India on 12 March last year.

Five months later the country recorded 50,000 deaths and surpassed 100,000 after another two months - reporting 150,000 in January this year.

Deaths had slowed until the middle of last month, when they began to rise sharply.

Experts believe the figures for COVID-19 infections and fatalities are severe undercounts.

The strain has broken the country's health system, overwhelming health workers and leaving patients suffocating because oxygen supplies have run out.

Relatives of the ill have been left to beg for oxygen cylinders, empty hospital beds, and medicine.

Crematoriums have spilled over into car parks and fires are lighting up the night skies.

India has called in its armed forces to support the health system, with chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat saying oxygen supplies would be released from military reserves and retired medical workers will help civilian doctors.

The UK is among the countries to have offered help and the US has promised raw materials for vaccine production, boosting India's ability to manufacture more doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

India's capital Delhi is in lockdown, as are the western and southwestern states of Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said people were falling sick more severely and for longer periods, stacking up
the pressure.

"The current wave is particularly dangerous," he said.

"It is supremely contagious and those who are contracting it are not able to recover as swiftly. In these conditions,
intensive care wards are in great demand."

In addition, the country's vaccination programme is struggling, with nearly 10% of the population having received one jab but only 1.5% having had both.

Indians over the age of 18 will be eligible to get the vaccine from this weekend.

Health experts say huge gatherings during Hindu festivals and mammoth election rallies in some states have accelerated the unprecedented surge India is seeing now.

They also say the government's mixed messaging and its premature declarations of victory over the virus encouraged people to relax when they should have continued to social distance, wear masks and avoid large crowds.

Police said a fire early on Wednesday at a hospital on the outskirts of Mumbai killed four people and injured several more.

Accidents at hospitals have become a serious concern.

Last week a fire at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients and a leaking oxygen tank at another killed 22 people.