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coronavirus crisis

India is running dangerously low on oxygen as COVID-19 cases spike, and crematoriums can't meet demand

India on Friday reported 332,730 new COVID-19 cases from the past 24 hours, beating the grim record it set Thursday, and oxygen supplies in the country are so low that several hospitals in the capital, New Delhi, said they have nearly or completely exhausted their supplies. As hospital put out emergency calls for oxygen on social media, the government is scrambling to ship in reserves from retooled industrial oxygen plants. Meanwhile, COVID-19 patients are dying while their families search for open hospital beds, and crematoriums cannot keep up with demand.

India on Friday reported 2,263 new deaths over the past 24 hours, for a total pandemic fatality count of 186,920, but "those who've analyzed the numbers of daily cremations taking place suggest the number is many times higher," Aleem Maqbool reports at BBC News.

An analysis Thursday by the Financial Times found that the number of COVID-19 cremations in four Indian states was anywhere from three times the official number of COVID-19 deaths in some districts to 100 times higher in others. "Local news reports for seven districts across the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar show that while at least 1,833 people are known to have died of COVID-19 in recent days, based mainly on cremations, only 228 have been officially reported," FT says.

Health experts blame India's COVID-19 tsunami on more transmissible new variants, especially the B.1.617 strain first detected in the country last month, plus a lack of preparation for a coronavirus resurgence and decisions by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP party to permit mass Hindu religious gatherings and hold packed BJP rallies for upcoming elections in West Bengal state.

Vijay Chauthaiwale, a BJP official who heads India's foreign affairs department, told BBC News there's no proof the rallies and Hindu festivals were super-spreader events and blamed the rise in cases on individuals deciding to stop social distancing and mask-wearing, and start using public transportation. But BJP isn't above politicizing the pandemic.

"The entire system has broken down," Santosh Kumar, the son of a BJP leader in Lucknow, told FT. "Every other person in the administration here is quarantining. People are finding out from each other what medication to take and doing what they can."