New Delhi has been placed under a weekend lockdown as India faces a ferocious new coronavirus wave, with more than 200,000 fresh daily cases and families clamouring for drugs and hospital beds.
Hopes that South Asian countries might have beaten the pandemic have been dashed with India seeing more than 2m cases this month alone and Bangladesh and Pakistan imposing shutdowns.
India’s per-capita rates remain low by international comparison, raising the prospect that infection numbers – fuelled possibly by a virulent new “double mutant” – may explode further.
After a national lockdown a year ago led to hundreds of deaths and one of the worst slumps of any major economy, the Indian government has been desperate to avoid a second stoppage.
Many states are however clamping down, including Maharashtra, where the biggest city is Mumbai, industry-heavy Gujarat, and Karnataka, which is home to the IT hub Bangalore.
Uttar Pradesh state, home to some 240 million people, on Friday announced that all villages and cities would be under lockdown for one day on Sunday.
In the capital New Delhi, which has overtaken Mumbai as the worst-hit Indian city, restaurants, malls, gyms and spas were shut for the weekend.
Weddings can go ahead with guests limited to 50, while a maximum of 20 people can attend funerals. Movie theatres can open with one-third capacity.
“Don’t panic. All essential services will be available through the weekend,” the city’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said.
Similarly, the northern state of Uttarakhand has restricted gatherings to 200 people – but exempted the vast ongoing Hindu festival Kumbh Mela.
The gathering in Haridwar has attracted as many as 25 million people since January, including some 4.6 million this week alone, with most people ignoring Covid-19 guidelines.
One seer died from the virus on Thursday and 80 other holy men have tested positive. Experts fear that the millions of devotees will now take the virus back to their home towns and villages.
Election rallies are also going ahead in the eastern state of West Bengal, with home minister Amit Shah attending two roadshows and one public meeting on Friday alone.
In state capital Kolkata, railway employee Samaresh Tapna fell sick after attending one such gathering and was hospitalised.
“I felt angry with myself… I cursed my fate,” the 42-year-old told AFP.
Hospitals are running short of oxygen and coronavirus medicines such as Remdesivir, prompting desperate people to pay exorbitant rates on the black market.
Social media is full of horror stories of desperate calls to help a loved one needing hospital treatment for Covid-19 or other complaints.
“I lost a cousin on Saturday. He was not admitted after a stroke. Tried 4 hospitals,” read one message on a Delhi neighbourhood WhatsApp group this week.
In a disturbing new trend, doctors told AFP they had seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 patients aged under 45, including children.
“Last year there were practically no children presenting symptoms,” said Khusrav Bajan, a consultant at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja national hospital.
India’s drive to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people has also hit obstacles, with just 117 million shots administered so far and stocks running low, according to some local authorities.
“(It is) understandable that many people are sick of the restrictions and want to resume normal life. We must redouble our efforts to contain this disease as too many lives are at stake,” said Udaya Regmi from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“This is a wakeup call to the world. Vaccines must be available to everyone, everywhere, rich and poor to overcome this terrible pandemic,” Regmi said in a statement, calling the surge across South Asia “truly frightening”.