'A hell out here': COVID-19 ravages rural India

India's coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began, as the disease rampaged through the countryside, leaving families to weep over the dead in rural hospitals or camp in wards to tend the sick.

Boosted by highly infectious variants, the second wave erupted in February to inundate hospitals and medical staff, as well as crematoriums and mortuaries. Experts still cannot say for sure when the figures will peak.

Indian state leaders clamoured for vaccines to stop the second wave and the devastation that it has wrought, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop exporting vaccines, ramp up production and help them procure urgent supplies from overseas.

"People will die in the same way in the third and fourth waves as they have this time" without more vaccines, Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia told reporters.

Deaths grew by a record 4,205 while infections rose 348,421 in the 24 hours to Wednesday, taking the tally past 23 million, health ministry data showed. Experts believe the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

Funeral pyres have blazed in city parking lots, and bodies have washed up on the banks of the holy river Ganges, immersed by relatives whose villages were stripped bare of the wood needed for cremations.

Lacking beds, drugs and oxygen, many hospitals in the world's second-most populous nation have been forced to turn away droves of sufferers.

"We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day," the Indian Express newspaper quoted virologist Shahid Jameel as saying. "It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak."

'HERE AND NOW'

India is using the AstraZeneca vaccine made at the Serum Institute in the western city of Pune and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech but has fully vaccinated barely 2.5 percent of the population.

Indians need vaccines "here and now", the chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, said in a letter to Modi.

The country accounts for half of COVID-19 cases and 30 percent of deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization said in its latest weekly report.

Relatives help Jagdish Singh, 57, out of an ambulance outside a government-run hospital to receive treatment, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Bijnor district, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 11, 2021. REUTERS

The full impact of the B.1.617 variant found in India, which the WHO has designated as being of global concern, is not yet clear, it added.

The variant has been detected in six countries in the Americas, the Pan American Health Organisation said, adding that it was worried that it was highly transmissible.

Britain, which has also detected the variant, is looking at all possible solutions to tackle a surge of related cases, including in the northern English town of Bolton, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament.

RURAL SPREAD

Daily infections are shooting up in the Indian countryside in comparison to big towns, where they have slowed after last month's surge, experts say.

More than half the cases this week in the western state of Maharashtra were in rural areas, up from a third a month ago. That share is nearly two-thirds in the most populous, and mainly rural, state of Uttar Pradesh, government data showed.

Television showed images of people weeping over the bodies of loved ones in ramshackle rural hospitals while others camped in wards tending to the sick.

A pregnant woman was taking care of her husband who had breathing difficulties in a hospital in Bhagalpur in the eastern state of Bihar, which is seeing a case surge its health system could barely have handled at the best of times.

"There is no doctor here, she sleeps the whole night here, taking care of her husband," the woman's brother told India Today television.

In a corridor outside, two sons were wailing over the body of their father, saying repeatedly that he could have been saved if only he had been given a bed in an intensive care unit.

At the general hospital in Bijnor, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, a woman lay in a cot next to a garbage can and medical waste.

"How can someone get treated if the situation is like this?" asked her son, Sudesh Tyagi. "It is a hell out here."