NEW DELHI — India's government, facing calls for a strict lockdown to slow a devastating surge in coronavirus infections, was ordered by the Supreme Court on Wednesday to submit a plan to meet New Delhi hospitals' oxygen needs within a day.
The court decided against immediately punishing officials for failing to end a 2-week-old erratic supply of oxygen to overstretched hospitals.
"Ultimately putting officers in jail or hauling officers for contempt will not bring oxygen. Please tell us steps to solve this," Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud said.
The court stayed a contempt notice earlier issued to the government by the New Delhi High Court for defying its order to supply adequate oxygen to more than 40 New Delhi hospitals. The government officials found guilty could have faced six months in prison and a fine.
With 382,315 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, India's tally has risen to more than 20.6 million since the pandemic began. The Health Ministry also reported 3,780 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 226,188. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.
On Tuesday, the New Delhi High Court court, which had summoned two Home Ministry officials for a hearing Wednesday, said the grim reality is that hospitals are reducing the number of beds and asking patients to move elsewhere. The court is hearing petitions filed by several hospitals and nursing homes struggling with irregular oxygen supplies.
"You can put your head in the sand like an ostrich, we will not. We are not going to take no for an answer," Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said Tuesday.
Raghav Chaddha, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi Party governing New Delhi, said hospitals were getting only 40% of their 700 metric ton (772 U.S. ton) daily needs through the federal government, and the local government was arranging additional supplies to meet the shortfall and setting up new oxygen plants.
A massive wave of infections since April has pushed India's health care system to the brink, with people begging for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds on social media and news channels.
Bodies have been piling up at cremation grounds and in graveyards with relatives waiting for hours for last rites.
Dileep Kumar, a student, said he was asked by hospital authorities to move his father to another hospital in Ghaziabad, a town on the outskirts of New Delhi, after the first hospital ran out of oxygen.
Authorities are scrambling to add more beds, sending oxygen from one corner of the country to another, and scaling up manufacturing of the few drugs effective against COVID-19.
Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said this week "a lockdown is now the only option because of a complete lack of strategy by the Indian government."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is reluctant to impose a national lockdown for fear of the economic fallout. Modi said last month that it should be the last resort.
But nearly a dozen states have imposed curbs 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 populated states of Maharashtra and Bihar are also under lockdowns with varying curbs.
Efforts to scale up a vaccination drive are hampered by the shortage of doses. India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, has so far administered 160 million doses.
The global community is extending a helping hand. The United States, Britain, Germany and several other nations are rushing therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen to India, along with materials needed to boost domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.
Late Wednesday, the U.S. State Department announced all non-essential American staff at the embassy in New Delhi and consulates around India could leave the country because of the surging outbreak. Doing so would be voluntary and not required. Families of embassy and consulate staff had been allowed to leave last month.