Indians Turn To Witch Doctors As Deadly COVID-19 Strain Spreads From Major Cities To Rural Areas

 Indians are turning to witch doctors who are branding them with hot irons in a vain attempt to cure Covid as the infection spread from urban centres to rural villages where healthcare is often non-existent. 

Dr. Ashita Singh, head of medicine at Chinchpada Christian Hospital in a remote part of Maharashtra state which houses the infection epicenter of Mumbai, said she is seeing increasing numbers of patients arriving with branding marks given to them by witch doctors to drive out 'spirits' they believe cause the infection.

Others rely on herbal cures while some have fled their villages out of fear of demons which they believe are spreading the disease, which is helping the infection to spread further and faster.

Those who do seek out help at her hospital - which is only equipped to deal with 80 patients - often come only as a last resort, she added, and are usually too sick to save. 

India is currently suffering through the world's worst second wave of Covid, accounting for around 40 per cent of global cases of the virus each day and thousands of deaths - though analysts believe both figures are likely a gross under-estimate.

Thursday brought yet another day of record numbers - 379,257 cases and 3,645 deaths - as the crisis shows no sign of slowing down and the country's healthcare system buckles.

India DOES have enough oxygen - the real problem is transporting it

India's acute oxygen shortage has become a defining feature of its second wave of Covid, with people forced to buy it on the black market for thousands of dollars per tank as supplies run short. 

But analysis say the country does actually produce enough oxygen to cover its needs - around 7,000 tonnes a day - and the real problem is distributing it to the areas where it is needed.

Most of India's oxygen producers are located in the east, where it is mainly used in industry, but infection centres like Mumbai and Delhi are in the west and north meaning it has to be transported there.

But transporting oxygen is difficult - it has to be carried as a liquid in special cryogenic tankers and India has a shortage of them.

It also has to be moved by road or rail, meaning the process of transporting it is slow, because it is too dangerous to fly with.  

'The supply chain has to be tweaked to move medical oxygen from certain regions which have excess supply to regions which need more supply,' the head of one of India's biggest medical oxygen suppliers Inox Air Products, Siddharth Jain, told AFP.

Meanwhile, many hospitals do not have on-site oxygen plants, often because of poor infrastructure, a lack of expertise and high costs.

Late last year, India issued tenders for on-site oxygen plants for hospitals. But the plans were never actioned, local media report.

Speaking to Radio 4, she said: '[There is] a lot of dependence on indigenous medicine, in ancient beliefs.

'We have a lot of patients who are on our wards right now who have marks on their abdomen because they first went to the witch doctor who gave them hot iron branding in the hope that the evil spirit that is supposed to be causing this illness will be exorcised. 

'[The witch doctor] is their first port of call, only a small proportion will come to the hospital, most will go to the witch doctor or the indigenous practitioner, who will give them herbal medication for their illnesses.

'A lot of time is wasted and people come in very late and very sick, and a lot of them never come to the hospital so what we see in the hospital is really just the tip of the iceberg.' 

Cities and states have rushed to bring in new lockdown measures as the crisis worsens, but there is still no talk of another nationwide lockdown from Prime Minister Modi - who just weeks ago was declaring 'victory' over the virus.

Instead, it appears India's strategy is to try and vaccinate its way out of the crisis, with the government allowing everyone over the age of 18 to book a vaccine via a website from Wednesday.

But the site repeatedly crashed as it received 250,000 clicks per minute, while questions were asked about how quickly India can produce enough shots to cover its 1.4billion population.

Until lockdowns slow the infection or enough people are vaccinated to stop the virus spreading, its is unlikely that India's crisis will ease.

The explosion in infections, blamed in part on a new virus variant as well as mass political and religious events, has overwhelmed hospitals with dire shortages of beds, drugs and oxygen.

Despite rallies being blame as one of the causes of infection, India has pushed ahead with state elections - packing people into polling stations with little thought to social distancing.

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