India hospitals overwhelmed by virus as Japan to declare emergency

India hospitals overwhelmed by virus as Japan to declare emergency

Hospitals in India launched desperate appeals for oxygen on Friday as the nation's Covid crisis plummeted to horrifying new depths, while Japan readied to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo just three months before it hosts the Olympics.

India lockdown

Covid-19 surges are placing a major strain on healthcare systems across the world, with no end in sight to a pandemic that has killed more than three million people.

The wave in India has been blamed on a new "double mutant" virus variant and the government's allowing huge public gatherings that have turned out to be super-spreader events.

The country on Friday reported more than 330,000 new infections and 2,000 deaths in a single day, as healthcare facilities sounded the alarm on oxygen supplies for patients on ventilator support.

"SOS -- less than an hour's oxygen supplies at Max Smart Hospital & Max Hospital Saket," one of the biggest private hospital chains in Delhi said on Twitter. 

"Over 700 patients admitted, need immediate assistance."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was set to hold at least three crisis meetings to discuss oxygen supplies and the availability of critical medicines.

Compounding the misery, 13 Covid patients died in Mumbai when a fire broke out in their hospital -- the latest in a string of blazes at Indian healthcare facilities.

There had been hopes at the start of the year that India may have put the worst of the pandemic behind it. 

That belief led the government to lower its guard and allow most activity to return almost to normal in recent months, including weddings and cricket matches.

The vast Kumbh Mela festival, one of the world's biggest religious gatherings, held in the city of Haridwar, attracted an estimated 25 million Hindu pilgrims, mostly without masks.

Many parts of the country have now tightened restrictions, with the capital in lockdown and all non-essential services banned in Maharashtra. The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, goes into a shutdown this weekend.

Other countries have closed their doors to India, fearing the new virus strain. The United Arab Emirates on Thursday became the latest nation to impose restrictions, while Canada halted flights from both India and Pakistan.

- 'Strong, brief and focused' -

Many countries are seeing fresh waves of the virus despite vaccine programmes gaining ground.

Japan was on Friday set to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other regions, just three months before the country is supposed to host the Olympics.

The capital region on Thursday recorded more than 860 new infections, figures not seen since January. Cases have surged over the winter and rebounded since a previous state of emergency was lifted in March.

"We will take strong, brief and focused emergency measures," said top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato.

The curbs will coincide with the annual Golden Week holiday, Japan's busiest travel period, and could involve cutting some train and bus services to discourage movement.

Authorities in affected regions are also likely to bar spectators from sports events -- but officials have been insistent that the emergency measures will have no impact on staging the Olympics.

Vaccination programmes that started very sluggishly in many European countries are now beginning to pick up speed.

Germany is expecting to open up inoculation to all adults in June at the latest, Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

Europe's biggest economy is in talks with Russia to buy 30 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, according to Saxony state premier Michael Kretschmer, who discussed the issue with President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.

The AstraZeneca vaccine's troubles show no sign of abating, with the European Commission seeking to launch legal action against the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker for under-delivering doses to the EU, which hobbled the bloc's early rollout of jabs.

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