A deadly hospital fire in western India in the early hours of Saturday added to the misery in the country as it battles new global records in a staggering second wave of coronavirus cases.
The blaze ripped through a Covid-19 ward in the city of Bharuch, killing at least 18 people — 16 of them patients, two of them health care workers — officials told local news outlets. Efforts were underway to determine the fire’s cause, and fire department officials said a short circuit might have led to the blaze.
The episode came as the United States announced that it would begin restricting travel from India next week as a surge of infections and deaths overwhelms the South Asian country, which continued its catastrophic run of record coronavirus transmissions on Saturday with more than 400,000 new reported cases and 3,500 deaths. No other country has surpassed 400,000 reported cases in a single day.
The second wave in India has crammed hospitals and left people dying as they wait to see doctors. Relatives of the sick are sharing pleas on social media for oxygen, medicine and other scarce supplies. There have been more than 19 million confirmed cases in India and more than 211,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database. Experts say the true numbers are probably much higher.
The country’s health system — fragile and underfunded even in normal times — is showing signs of strain. The fire in Bharuch, in Gujarat State, came on the heels of several recent accidents in Indian hospitals that have claimed the lives of coronavirus patients.
A separate fire this week killed four people at a hospital in Surat, another city in Gujarat. At least 22 Covid-19 patients died at a hospital a few days earlier in the neighboring state of Maharashtra when a leak cut off their oxygen supply. And two days later, a fire at another hospital in Maharashtra left at least 13 Covid-19 patients dead.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered condolences to the families of the victims in Bharuch. Gujarat’s chief minister, Vijay Rupani, said the state government would give about $5,300 in aid to each victim’s family.
The United States joined nations including Australia, Britain and Canada in curtailing travel from India. The U.S. restrictions, which are expected to take effect on Tuesday, will not apply to citizens or permanent residents of the United States, their spouses or minor children or siblings, or to the parents of citizens or permanent residents who are under 21.
Those exempt from the ban must still comply with earlier requirements for international travelers, including a negative test result for the virus before traveling and again upon entering the United States from India. They must also quarantine if they are not vaccinated.
Starting on Monday, Australia will bar all travelers, including its own citizens, from entering if they have been in India during the previous two weeks, with violators subject to prison terms and heavy fines. Officials acknowledged that the measure was “very drastic” but said it was necessary to keep Australians safe.
The United States and other governments have pledged their support to India as it grapples with the world’s gravest coronavirus crisis since the pandemic began. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Friday that military cargo planes had begun the first deliveries of emergency supplies promised by the Biden administration.
On Saturday, India expanded vaccinations to all people over age 18, but many states said that they would not be able to meet the demand because of a lack of doses. Less than 2 percent of India’s 940 million adults have been fully vaccinated, according to a Times database.
The coronavirus outbreak in India has spilled across the border into Nepal, where health officials have warned that hospital beds are unavailable, vaccines are running short and the number of new infections is rising faster than overwhelmed clinics can record them.
The situation is so dire in Nepal that the Health Ministry in the Himalayan nation issued a statement on Friday in which, in effect, it threw up its hands.
“Since coronavirus cases have spiked beyond the capacity of the health system and hospitals have run out of beds, the situation is unmanageable,” the ministry said after the government recorded 5,657 new infections on Friday, the highest daily total since October.
And with more than one-third of tests returning a positive result, officials worry that the actual number of cases is much higher. Nepalis who are infected but have only minor symptoms have been told to stay home to keep hospitalizations down.
Experts believe the outbreak is being fueled by Nepali migrant workers who returned home in recent weeks from India as lockdowns were imposed there. The 1,100-mile border between the countries is porous, and hardly any of the returnees were tested for the coronavirus or placed into quarantine.
Within weeks, many of them began falling ill.
“Just a few days after returning from India, one of my relatives died in an ambulance,” said Narendra Singh, a local leader from Bajhang, a western district near the Indian border. “More and more people returning from India are getting sick. And the virus is spreading here. We don’t have any quarantine or isolation facilities in the villages.”
Nepal has since closed its border crossings with India, but the virus is already spreading. In early March, Nepal was recording fewer than 100 cases a day. Now, the daily average exceeds 4,000 reported cases, according to a New York Times database.
At the same time, Nepal’s vaccination drive has slowed. India donated one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Nepal signed an agreement to purchase two million more from an Indian manufacturer, the Serum Institute of India. But India curtailed vaccine exports last month after its outbreak worsened, and Nepali officials say that the company has shipped only half the amount.
As a result, after 1.7 million people out of a population of nearly 30 million received the first dose of the vaccine, only 380,000 have received a second shot.
In late March, China donated 800,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine. Nepalis flocked to vaccination centers, prompting some officials to worry that the crowds could spread the virus. This week, the government imposed a new two-week lockdown, bringing vaccinations to a halt.
“We were vaccinating people even as vaccination centers became overcrowded,” said Dr. Jhalak Sharma Gautam, head of the national immunization program. “But we stopped when the government announced lockdown.”
Many Nepalis now wonder if they will ever be inoculated. Ram Kumar Nepali, a sanitation worker in the capital, Kathmandu, has continued his early-morning shifts collecting garbage during the lockdown, usually without any protective equipment.
“I often think I will never get the chance” to be vaccinated, said Nepali, 43. “We have to go around the capital to collect waste even during this terrific pandemic. It’s risky.”
As the coronavirus has surged in India, so has the collective grief and anxiety among the huge Indian diaspora, over loved ones lost or fighting for their lives amid a health-care system pushed past the brink.
In WhatsApp chats, video calls, Facebook groups and forums, a global community has worried, mourned and organized.
Some 17 million people from India were living outside their homeland in 2020, according to figures from the United Nations, and millions more have Indian heritage, making the diaspora the largest in the world. In the United States, some 4.8 million people were either born in India or reported Indian ancestry on the last census.
They have looked on in horror as the country records more infections per day than any other since the pandemic began. For many, the pain has been accompanied by a realization of their worst fear: That when the people they love need them the most, they can’t be there to help.
In London, many are organizing in the face of a seemingly impossible situation: pooling money to buy oxygen concentrators, connecting the sick with doctors and using community networks to share resources.
Worldwide, the number of new coronavirus cases has shot up since the beginning of March, more than doubling in two months. For the past two weeks, new global cases have exceeded their previous high point in early January. The average daily rate of new cases has now been above 800,000 for more than a week.
The Transportation Security Administration extended a mandate Friday that requires travelers to wear masks at airports, on airplanes and on commuter bus and rail systems, through Sept. 13. The mandate was set to expire on May 11.
“Right now, about half of all adults have at least one vaccination shot and masks remain an important tool in defeating this pandemic,” Darby LaJoye, a T.S.A. spokesperson, said in a statement.
The original order took effect in February and was part of the Biden administration’s goal to require masks for 100 days. Exceptions to the mandate are travelers under the age of 2 and those with certain disabilities that don’t allow them to wear a mask safely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask rules earlier this week, saying that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear a mask outdoors while doing activities alone or in small gatherings. But the C.D.C. stopped short of not recommending masks outside altogether and still recommends wearing a mask indoors.
Airlines started requiring passengers to wear masks nearly a year ago, but they had no federal mandate to back up their rules. As the order’s expiration date got closer, leaders in the airline industry began to push for an extension. The Association of Flight Attendants applauded the extension in a statement. Earlier this month, it called for the directive to be extended to make it easier to deal with passengers who were not complying with mask rules set by airlines and airports.
With the U.S. summer tourist season looming and vaccinations gathering steam, summer camps, amusement parks, beachside hotels and restaurants — anticipating an influx of visitors — are confronting a dramatic shortage of seasonal workers. It is threatening to sabotage their best efforts to stay financially afloat after more than a year of pandemic-fueled economic hardship.
Now small business and industry groups are pressuring the Biden administration to relax international travel restrictions and visa application protocols that would allow for more foreign workers to do the jobs that they say American citizens are unwilling to take.
Morey’s Piers, a seaside amusement park in Wildwood, N.J., needs to fill 1,500 jobs, including roller coaster operators, lifeguards and ticket sellers by the middle of June. To recruit, the company has advertised openings on 12 billboards in the region, joined virtual jobs fairs at high schools and tapped its network of former employees.
But so far, it has managed to fill less than a quarter of the positions, and a key source of its seasonal work force in previous years — foreign students from more than 30 countries — is unavailable because of pandemic restrictions. Now executives worry they may have to limit hours or keep certain rides closed for the entire season.
“We have about 350 filled right now so I’m not sleeping at night,” said Denise Beckson, the company’s vice president of human resources. “We’re really optimistic about visitor demand this summer, but we’re very concerned about staffing.”
In March, President Biden allowed a ban on foreign worker programs imposed by former President Donald J. Trump to expire, and approved an additional 22,000 HB-2 seasonal, nonagricultural worker visas. In late April, over 500 companies and industry groups that depend on the J-1 foreign student work visa program, urged in a letter to the State Department to relax travel restrictions and waive certain requirements like applicant interviews in an effort to supplement their American work force.
But even as vaccinations increase in the United States, the push for more foreign workers is colliding with public health concerns over a global coronavirus surge fueled by the rapid spread of more contagious variants. Last month, the State Department announced it will expand its “do not travel” guidance to about 80 percent of countries worldwide, including many that are sources of seasonal foreign workers, citing “unprecedented risk to travelers” from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What we’re hearing universally from employers and sponsors is that there are not enough Americans interested in what they’re able to employ for the summer,” said Ilir Zherka, the executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, a lobbying group which sent the letter. “They’re trying to look for ways to incentivize more American employees, but also for support from the State Department.”