A crematorium ground for Covid-19 victims in East Delhi.

New Delhi bureau chief describes the fear of living amid a disease spreading at such scale and speed

By Jeffrey Gettleman via The New York Times Photographs by Atul

India is suffering the world’s worst coronavirus crisis. Experts had always warned that Covid-19 could wreak real havoc in India. This country is enormous — 1.4 billion people. And densely populated. And in many places, very poor.

Crematories are so full of bodies, it’s as if a war just happened. Fires burn around the clock. Many places are holding mass cremations, dozens at a time, and at night, in certain areas of New Delhi, the sky glows.

India is now recording more infections per day — as many as 350,000 — than any other country has since the pandemic began, and that’s just the official number, which most experts think is a vast underestimation.

New Delhi, India’s sprawling capital of 20 million, is suffering a calamitous surge. A few days ago, the positivity rate hit a staggering 36 percent — meaning more than one out of three people tested were infected. A month ago, it was less than 3 percent.

But experts say those numbers, however staggering, represent just a fraction of the real reach of the virus’s spread, which has thrown this country into emergency mode. Millions of people refuse to even step outside — their fear of catching the virus is that extreme. Accounts from around the country tell of the sick being left to gasp for air as they wait at chaotic hospitals that are running out of lifesaving oxygen.

The sudden surge in recent weeks, with an insidious newer variant possibly playing a role, is casting increasing doubt on India’s official Covid-19 death toll of nearly 200,000, with more than 2,000 people dying every day.

The infections have spread so fast that hospitals have been completely swamped. People are turned away by the thousands. Medicine is running out. So is lifesaving oxygen. The sick have been left stranded in interminable lines at hospital gates or at home, literally gasping for air.

Receiving oxygen outside a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in South Delhi on Sunday.
Receiving oxygen outside a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in South Delhi on Sunday.

However difficult and dangerous it feels in Delhi for all of us, it’s probably going to get worse. Epidemiologists say the numbers will keep climbing, to 500,000 reported cases a day nationwide and as many as one million Indians dead from Covid-19 by August.

Mourning outside a cremation ground on Saturday.

Read more