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Indian app overestimates capital's medical capacity

New Delhi ten times more affected by coronavirus than outlying areas

The official Delhi Corona app launched in early June has struggled to provide an accurate picture of hospital capacity during the pandemic. (Source photos by Reuters and Kiran Sharma)

NEW DELHI -- India's capital is battling a strong surge in COVID-19 cases, prompting fears that its hospitals will soon be unable to treat patients.

According to a new government app, Delhi's hospitals had a total of 11,114 beds available for novel coronavirus patients on Friday afternoon, of which 5,259 were indicated as vacant. The app also showed that of 703 ventilators for such patients, 231 were not being used.

The reality on the ground was somewhat different, however. Although the app indicates plenty of spare capacity, local news and social media are filled with harrowing tales of the sick being shunted from one full medical facility to another.

"I called up four private hospitals near my home to enquire about the availability of beds, and they all said they were fully occupied," said Neha, 39, a government employee who lives with her parents. With cases rising in the neighborhood, she is concerned about her 72-year-old father who often pops out to the shops. "Elderly people are at higher risk," she said anxiously.

The Delhi Corona app was launched by the local government on June 2 to keep the public informed about hospital capacity. It can be installed on a smartphone, and viewed without any registration.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has warned that Delhi could have 550,000 confirmed cases by July, filling 80,000 beds. The hospital overload will be exacerbated by a flood of outpatients; fewer than 15% of COVID-19 patients usually require full hospitalization.

"Private hospitals have mostly run out of beds but the government ones have many available," Kejriwal said recently. However, given a choice, people avoid government hospitals because of poor facilities and the lack of hygiene. The app is also clearly struggling to provide prompt status updates.

Delhi has a population of over 20 million and is administered by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party that Kejriwal heads. It is the country's third worst affected area after Maharashtra state in the west and Tamil Nadu in the south, with 49,979 confirmed cases by June 19 among the national tally of 380,532.

Delhi has had almost a sixth of nearly 13,000 deaths so far in India -- the fourth worst-affected country in the world after the U.S., Brazil and Russia.

Delhi's cases have increased sharply in the past month after easing of the lockdown; shopping malls and places of worship reopened on June 8. At the end of May, the capital had nearly 20,000 confirmed cases -- less than half the current level.

With hospital capacity squeezed, hotels, banquet halls and stadiums are being eyed as alternatives. The search is also on for more ventilators with fewer than 20,000 available nationally in early May against an expected need for 75,000 this month. Orders have mostly been placed with domestic manufacturers.

There have been reports of price gouging by private hospitals, with some charging upwards of 25,000 rupees ($330) per day -- roughly the monthly income of an average middle-class household.

The central government has recently promised more support to local authorities. It capped daily rates for private isolation beds to below 10,000 rupees on June 19, and similarly slashed charges for intensive care units and ventilators.

Home Minister Amit Shah also promised thousands of extra beds. Tests have been doubled to 9,000 per day, and laboratory charges capped at 2,400 rupees -- about half the previous rate.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has unveiled the country's first mobile laboratory for infectious disease diagnostics. A 10,000-bed temporary COVID-19 facility is meanwhile being set up at the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, a multifaith meditation center in Delhi. It is believed to be the world's largest makeshift hospital for novel coronavirus patients, and is expected to be ready by early July.

Rajinder K. Dhamija, head of the neurology department at Delhi's Lady Hardinge Medical College, notes that India has only about 250 cases per million people in a population of 1.3 billion. The figure for Delhi, however, is around 2,000 per million -- nearly 10 times the national average.

"The sample testing in the city should be 10 times the national average," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. India has carried out some 4,500 tests per million -- compared to Australia's 80,000, for example.

"We need a two-pronged strategy in Delhi and other worst-hit cities such as Mumbai and Chennai by ensuring beds, intensive care units and other facilities for the patients requiring hospitalization," said Dhamija. He also called for aggressive scaling up of tests to detect and isolate infected people.

COVID-19 has been keeping Delhi's crematoria busy.   © Reuters

Dhamija is expecting pandemic peaks at different times depending on location, most likely mid-July for Delhi and Mumbai. "Currently, we are at a stage where the infection is spreading from urban areas to semi-urban and rural areas," he said.

Ratings agency Fitch has meanwhile cut its outlook for India to negative from stable, and expects a 5% contraction in national economic activity in the current fiscal year, which began in April. "The coronavirus pandemic has significantly weakened India's growth outlook for this year and exposed the challenges associated with a high public-debt burden," it said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains bullish. "India will not only fight against coronavirus, but will also win the battle and move forward," he said on Thursday.

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