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Indian government faces lockdown calls and contempt charges

NEW DELHI (AP) – The Indian government has faced calls for a strict lockdown to slow a devastating spike in new coronaviorus cases, and a New Delhi court will decide on Wednesday whether to punish those responsible for failing to not ending an erratic 2-week-old supply of oxygen to overburdened hospitals.

With 382,315 new confirmed cases, India’s total has risen to more than 20.6 million since the start of the pandemic. The health ministry also reported 3,780 deaths in the past 24 hours on Wednesday, bringing the total to 226,188. Experts believe both figures are underestimated.

Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said this week “a lockdown is now the only option due to a complete lack of strategy on the part of the Indian government.”

The New Delhi High Court will decide whether or not to bring contempt charges against officials for defying its order to meet the oxygen needs of more than 40 hospitals in the capital. Those found guilty face six months in prison or a fine.

The court summoned two Interior Ministry officials for Wednesday’s hearing.

“You can put your head in the sand like an ostrich, we won’t. We won’t accept a response,” said Judges Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli.

The sad reality is that hospitals are reducing the number of beds and asking patients to move elsewhere, the judges said. The court is hearing petitions filed by several hospitals and nursing homes struggling with irregular supplies of oxygen.

Raghav Chaddha, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi party governing New Delhi, said hospitals were only receiving 40% of their 700 metric tons (772 US tons) from the federal government, and that the local government was organizing additional supplies for filling the deficit and setting up new oxygen plants.

The latest wave of infections since April has pushed healthcare in India to the brink, with people begging for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds on social media and news channels.

Bodies pile up at cremation sites and in cemeteries with relatives waiting for hours for the last rites.

Dileep Kumar, a student, said hospital authorities asked him to transfer his father to another hospital in Ghaziabad, a city on the outskirts of New Delhi, after running out of oxygen on Tuesday.

Authorities are scrambling to add more beds, send oxygen from one part of the country to another and step up manufacturing of the few effective COVID-19 drugs.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is reluctant to impose a nationwide lockdown for fear of economic fallout. Modi said last month that it should be the last resort.

But nearly a dozen states have imposed restrictions on their own.

The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, implemented a five-day lockdown this week. The country’s second and third most populous states, Maharashtra and Bihar, are also under lockdown with varying borders.

Efforts to scale up the vaccination campaign are hampered by the shortage of doses. India, a country of 1.4 billion people, has so far administered 160 million doses.

The world community is reaching out. The United States, Great Britain, Germany and several other countries are shipping therapies, rapid viral tests and oxygen to India, as well as certain materials needed for India to boost its national production of COVID vaccines -19.

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