Satara/Ahmedabad, India
Reuters

India halted its hugely popular cricket league on Tuesday as COVID-19 infections surged past 20 million in the world's second-most populous country and the opposition leader said a nationwide lockdown was now the only way out. 

Cricket officials suspended the money-spinning Indian Premier League as the pandemic spirals out of control, with the country adding 10 million cases in just over four months, after taking more than 10 months to reach the first 10 million.

India New Delhi vaccination queue

People wearing protective face masks wait to receive a dose of COVISHIELD, a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a vaccination centre in New Delhi, India, on 4th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

"While we have tried to bring in some positivity and cheer, it is imperative that the tournament is now suspended and everyone goes back to their families and loved ones in these trying times," the IPL said. 

With 3.45 million active cases, India recorded 357,229 new infections over the last 24 hours, while deaths rose by 3,449 to 222,408, health ministry data showed.

NEPAL APPEALS FOR COVID-19 VACCINES AS CASES RISE

Nepal urgently needs at least 1.6 million AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine doses to administer second shots as the Himalayan country is recording a surge in new coronavirus cases.

"People who have already got the first dose will be in difficulty if they don't receive their second dose within the stipulated time," said Samir Adhikari, a senior official of the Ministry of Health and Population in capital Kathmandu.

On Monday, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli urged foreign donors to supply vaccines and critical care medicines to prevent a collapse of the small country's creaky health infrastructure.

Nepal, wedged between China and India, has already vaccinated more than two million people with the AstraZeneca vaccine provided by India and China's Sinopharm.

But authorities were forced to suspend the vaccination program last month after the country failed to secure fresh dispatches of vaccine from India and China.

"I would like to request our neighbours, friendly countries and international organisations to help us with vaccines and critical care medicines ...to support ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic,” Oli said in a televised address.

Oli said officials were in contact China and Russia and other manufacturers to urgently secure vaccines.

Oli, who has been criticised for doing little to contain the pandemic, said vaccines and critical care medicines were "global goods" and that every one should have access.

On Monday, Nepal's COVID-19 cases increased by 7,388 and deaths by 37, the highest spike in 24 hours since the pandemic started. Nepal has recorded a total of 343,418 cases and 3,362 deaths, according to official data.

Weeping relatives offered last respects to their loved ones as crematory workers lifted bodies for open air cremation on the bank of Bagmati river near the Pashupatinath temple, the biggest Hindu shrine in Kathmandu.

Crematory workers say they were stretched as the flow of dead bodies had increased with the recent spike in deaths.

- GOPAL SHARMA in Kathmandu, Nepal/Reuters

With hospitals running out of beds and oxygen and morgues and crematoria overflowing, experts say the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.

According to a Reuters tally, total infections were more than 20.2 million, second only to the United States.

"The only way to stop the spread of corona now is a full lockdown...GOI’s inaction is killing many innocent people," opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter, referring to the government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, widely criticised for allowing religious festivals and political gatherings attended by hundreds of thousands of largely unmasked people, is reluctant to impose a national lockdown for fear of the economic fallout, but several states have imposed social curbs.

The eastern state of Bihar ordered a lockdown until 15th May, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said. With more than 100,000 infections, its death toll is nearing 3,000, government figures show.

Glimmer of hope
The IPL tournament, with an estimated brand value of $US6.8 billion, was being played without spectators to a huge television audience in the cricket-obsessed nation but has been severely criticized for continuing while the healthcare system is falling apart.

The surge of the highly infectious Indian variant of the coronavirus has swamped hospitals and depleted supplies of oxygen, while sufferers have died in ambulances and car parks.

Rows of funeral pyres set up in parks and other open spaces are being used to cremate the overflow of corpses. A two-judge bench of the Delhi High Court has been holding almost daily video conferences to hear petitions from hospitals seeking oxygen and invoking India's constitutional right to protection of life.

But some hope surfaced in comments on Monday by a health ministry official who said infections in some regions were levelling out.

Government modelling points to a peak by Wednesday, a few days earlier than thought, since the virus has spread faster than expected.

India's surge has coincided with a dramatic drop in vaccinations due to supply and delivery problems.

At least three states, including Maharashtra, home to the commercial capital of Mumbai, reported scarcity of vaccines, shutting down some inoculation centres.

On Monday the state had injected 79,491 doses, after a record 534,372 a week ago. 

In Modi's adjoining home state of Gujarat, the three largest cities of Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara limited vaccines to those aged between 18 and 44, officials said.

Tired of waiting
The eastern state of Odisha also halted vaccinations in 11 of its 30 districts, health officials told Reuters.

"I am tired of standing in a queue," said Anil Rajapure, a 49-year-old farmer in Maharashtra's temple town of Wai, as he waited for his first shot.

"I will try one more time. If I don't get it then, I will give up," said Rajapure, adding that three earlier attempts had proved futile, either because stocks had run out or not arrived.

Forecasts by India's two current vaccine producers show it will take two months or more to boost total monthly output from the current 70 million to 80 million doses.

India, with the world's biggest vaccine making capacity, has partially or fully immunised only 9.5 per cent of its 1.35 billion people, according to the government's Co-Win portal.

The coronavirus, widely believed to have crossed to humans from bats before it was first identified in central China in late 2019, has also infected eight lions at a zoo in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, the federal government said.

The Asiatic lions had been isolated and were being treated, a statement added.

- With reporting by ANURON KUMAR MITRA in Bengaluru, SHILPA JAMKHANDIKAR in Mumbai, TANVI MEHTA in New Delhi and JATINDRA DASH in Bhubaneshwar