AHMEDABAD, India: India's new coronavirus infections hit a record level on Wednesday (Apr 14) with Mumbai set to be locked down at midnight, but hundreds of thousands of pilgrims still thronged to a religious festival in the north of the country.
The country reported 184,372 cases in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, taking total infections to 13.9 million. Deaths rose by 1,027, for a toll of 172,085.
After reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world's worst-hit country since Apr 2. The government blames a widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction among the population of 1.39 billion people.
The rise in cases comes as India's richest state, Maharashtra, the epicentre of the national second wave, is due to enter a full lockdown at midnight until the end of April to contain the spread of the virus. The state accounts for about a quarter of the country's total coronavirus cases.
READ: India's Maharashtra state battles huge COVID-19 vaccine shortages
India's commercial capital Mumbai was bustling with shoppers, stocking up before the lockdown comes into effect.
"We don't know if we will be allowed to set up our stalls from tomorrow, so we're asking our customers to stock up as much as possible today," said Susheela, a street vegetable vendor, who goes by only her first name.
There were snaking lines outside many grocery stores as residents waited to enter.
Elsewhere, over-stretched private hospitals are turning patients away, placing an increasing burden on government facilities.
In the western state of Gujurat, a Reuters witness saw a long queue of ambulances waiting outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital on Wednesday, with some patients being treated there while they waited.
"My wife tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. We called an ambulance this morning to bring her to hospital as she was facing difficulty in breathing," Becharbhai Waghela, who was accompanying his wife Shantaben, 61, told Reuters.
"We have been waiting in the ambulance outside the hospital campus for the last two hours."
A hospital source, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, said a lot of private hospitals were short of oxygen and were sending their patients to public hospitals.
CROWDS OF PILGRIMS
Chhattisgarh state - one of several hinterland regions struggling with a surge in cases - set up a temporary 370-bed hospital in an indoor stadium.
"The way COVID-19 cases are rising and people are getting hypoxia or low level of oxygen in the blood, there is a shortage of oxygen supply," said Avinash Chaturvedi, a doctor at the facility.
"We have converted this stadium into a COVID care centre to deal with that situation."
Despite this, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus gathered to bathe in the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar on Wednesday, the third major bathing day of the weeks-long Kumbh Mela festival.
Sanjay Gunjyal, the inspector general of police at the festival, said around 650,000 people had bathed on Wednesday morning.
"People are being fined for not following social distancing in non-crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded," he said.
There was little evidence of social distancing or mask-wearing, according to a Reuters witness.
More than a thousand cases have been reported in Haridwar district in the last two days, according to government data.