NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India recorded the world's highest daily tally of 314,835 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday as a second wave of the pandemic raised new fears about the ability of crumbling health services to cope.
Health officials across northern and western India including the capital, New Delhi, said they were in crisis, with most hospitals full and running out of oxygen.
Some doctors were advising patients to stay at home, while a crematorium in the eastern city of Muzaffarpur said it was being overwhelmed with bodies and grieving families had to wait their turn. A crematorium east of Delhi built funeral pyres in its parking lot.
"Right now there are no beds, no oxygen. Everything else is secondary," Shahid Jameel, a virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, told Reuters.
"The infrastructure is crumbling."
Some hospitals in New Delhi had run out of oxygen and authorities in neighbouring states were stopping supplies being taken to the capital to save it for their own needs, the city's deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia said.
"It might become difficult for hospitals here to save lives," Sisodia said in a televised address.
India's total cases are now at 15.93 million, while deaths rose by 2,104 to reach 184,657, according to the latest health ministry data.
The previous record one-day rise in cases was held by the United States, which had 297,430 new cases on one day in January, though its tally has since fallen sharply.
Television showed images of people with empty oxygencylinders crowding refilling facilities as they scrambled to save relatives in hospital.
In the western city of Ahmedabad, a man strapped to an oxygen cylinder lay in the back of a car outside a hospital as he waited for a bed, a Reuters picture showed.
"We never thought a second wave would hit us so hard," Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairman of healthcare firm Biocon and subsidiary Biocon Biologics, wrote in the Economic Times.
"Complacency led to unanticipated shortages of medicines, medical supplies and hospital beds."
Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain said there was a shortage of intensive care unit beds, with the city needing about 5,000 more than it could find.
"We can't call this a comfortable situation," he told reporters.
Similar surges of infections elsewhere around the world, in South America in particular, are threatening to overwhelm other health services.
China said on Thursday it is willing to help India in its COVID-19 fight.
"China is willing to provide the necessary support and help," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, without giving details of what such assistance might consist of.
India has launched a vaccination drive but only a tiny fraction of the population has had the shots.
Authorities have announced that vaccines will be available to anyone over the age of 18 from May 1 but India won't have enough shots for the 600 million people who will become eligible, experts say.
Health experts said India had let its guard down when thevirus seemed to be under control during the winter, when new daily cases were about 10,000, and it lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings.
Some experts say new, more infectious virus variants, in particular a "double mutant" variant that originated in India, are largely responsible for the spike in cases, but many also blame the politicians.
"The second wave is a consequence of complacency and mixing and mass gatherings. You don't need a variant to explain the second wave," said Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government ordered an extensive lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic but has been wary of the economic costs of more tough restrictions.
In recent weeks, the government has come in for criticism for holding packed political rallies for local elections and allowing a Hindu festival at which millions gathered.
This week, Modi urged state governments to use lockdowns as a last resort. He asked people to stay indoors and said the government was working to increase the supply of oxygen and vaccines.
Madhukar Pai, a professor of epidemiology at McGill Univerity in Canada, said India was a cautionary tale for the world.
"If we declare success too soon, open up everything, give up on public health, and not vaccinate rapidly, the new variants can be devastating," Pai wrote on Twitter
(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani, Krishna N. Das, Rupam Jain, Anuron Kumar Mitra, Alasdair Pal and Sumit Khanna; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Richard Pullin, Nick Macfie and Kim Coghill)