Fire in COVID-19 hospital kills 13 as India struggles with huge second wave

Punit PARANJPE / AFP

A fire in a hospital treating COVID-19 patients in India killed 13 people on Friday, as the country struggles to cope with the world's biggest surge of daily coronavirus infections since the pandemic began last year.

The blaze that began in a critical care unit of the Vijay Vallabh hospital in a suburb of the city of Mumbai is the latest accident to hit a medical facility in India crowded with people infected with the coronavirus.

On Wednesday, 22 COVID-19 patients died at a public hospital in Maharashtra state when their oxygen supply ran out after a leak in the tank.

India recorded 314,835 new infections on Thursday, surpassing a record held by the United States in January when it hit 297,430 new cases. The US tally has since fallen.

Medical oxygen and beds have become scarce with major hospitals putting notices they had no space to take in patients.

Max Healthcare, which runs a network of hospitals in northern and western India posted an appeal on Twitter on Friday for emergency supplies of oxygen at its facility in Delhi.

"SOS - Less than an hour's oxygen supplies at Max Smart Hospital & Max Hospital Saket. Awaiting promised fresh supplies from INOX since 1:00 am," the company said.

Similar desperate calls from hospitals and ordinary people have been posted on social media for days this week across the country.

Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan in the United States, said it was now as if there was no social safety net for Indians.

"Everyone is fighting for their own survival and trying to protect their loved ones. This is hard to watch," he said.

Health experts say India became complacent during winter, when daily cases were about 10,000 and seemed to be under control, and lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings.

New more infectious variants of the virus, in particular a "double mutant" variant that originated in India, may have helped accelerate the surge, experts said.

Canada banned flights from India, joining the UK, UAE and Singapore blocking arrivals.

The UK said it found 55 more cases of the Indian variant, known as B.1.617, in its latest weekly figure, taking the total of confirmed and probable cases of the variant there to 132.

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