Experts warned of new virus variant but Indian officials ignored them

Govt did not impose curbs to stop spread, instead continued with festivals, rallies

NEW DELHI When it comes to Covid-19, the cost of incompetence can be death.

It is a price India could have avoided paying had it listened to experts that it brought together to fight the pandemic.

A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.

Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the government did not impose major curbs to stop the spread.

Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition politicians.

The result: India reported more than 300,000 cases for a 12th straight day yesterday to take its overall number of cases to just shy of 20 million, as scientists predict a peak in the pandemic in the coming days.

With 368,147 cases over the past 24 hours, India's infections stand at 19.93 million, while deaths rose by 3,417 to 218,959.

Twenty-four people died in one hospital overnight on Sunday in the southern state of Karnataka after the hospital ran out of oxygen, press reports and sources said, though the district administration denied that shortages caused the deaths.

Another 12 died last Saturday in a hospital in New Delhi after it ran out of oxygen, reports said.

Several hospitals sent out desperate appeals for oxygen on social media overnight, with deliveries arriving only in the nick of time.

One children's clinic in Delhi raised the alarm on Twitter over a shortage of oxygen that has reportedly left 25 to 30 newborns and children at risk.

"Oxygen is a basic requirement of a hospital and a consistent supply has not been assured. We are constantly firefighting," the head doctor of the Madhukar Rainbow Children's Hospital told the Indian Express daily.

Mr Modi's government is reluctant to announce a national lockdown, concerned about the economic impact.

"In my opinion, only a national stay-at-home order and declaring medical emergency will help address the current healthcare needs," epidemiologist Bhramar Mukherjee with the University of Michigan said on Twitter. - REUTERS, AFP