NEW DELHI: This photograph taken on June 25, 2020 shows cardboard beds installed inside the campus hall of spiritual organization Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), which is being converted into a coronavirus care center. — AFP

NEW DELHI: India now has more than 500,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to government figures released yesterday that showed a record daily leap of 18,500 new infections. Authorities said a total of 15,685 people had died after another 385 fatalities were added to the toll in 24 hours. Meanwhile, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus, the two countries said, a possible boost to Israeli efforts to normalize relations with Gulf Arab countries.

The pandemic is not expected to peak in India for several more weeks and experts say the number of cases could pass one million before the end of July. Some state governments are considering imposing new lockdowns. A hard-hitting nationwide lockdown that started March 25 is gradually being eased because of the damage caused to the economy. The virus has particularly hit India’s densely populated cities and there are now major concerns for New Delhi which has overtaken Mumbai with nearly 80,000 cases.

The city’s government has predicted it will have 500,000 infections by the end of July. It is already using railway carriages to house patients and has taken over hotels and banquet halls to relieve the pressure on hard-pressed hospitals. The government has been criticized over a lack of testing that experts say has hidden the true number of cases in India, which now stands at 509,000.

The country is currently fourth in the world for the number of infections, behind the United States, Brazil and Russia, though it has a much lower death toll.

In a bid to boost tracing efforts, Delhi authorities have called in 33,000 health workers to screen about two million people in sealed off zones across the city of 20 million people. But cities across the nation of 1.3 billion people are braced for a huge wave of new cases in coming weeks.

India is deploying thousands of beds made of cardboard to makeshift medical facilities as it struggles to deal with the surging number of coronavirus cases. The low-cost beds are chemically coated to make them waterproof and can hold a 300-kg load, said Vikram Dhawan, who along with his brother came up with the design while they were stuck at home during the country’s months-long lockdown.

“One person can pick it up very comfortably,” Dhawan told AFP at his factory in the northern city of Bhiwadi which already makes cardboard products. “It’s compact, lightweight and can be manufactured and assembled in minutes.” The New Delhi government is installing 10,000 of the beds in a spiritual center on the outskirts of the city that is being converted into a dedicated coronavirus facility.

Mumbai, which like the capital has seen its hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, is also using them. “The most important thing is that the virus only stays on the surface of cardboard for 24 hours,” Dhawan said. “On any other surface, metal, wood or plastic, it stays for three to four days.” A study published in March in the US journal NEJM showed the coronavirus can remain for up to three days on plastic but only for 24 hours on cardboard.

Mattresses for the beds are supplied by Sheela Foam Limited, which teamed up with the Dhawan brothers earlier this year. “We typically associate beds with steel or wood but the requirement here was such that we needed a kind of disposable or sanitization bed,” said Sudhir Varanasi, head of supply chain management at Sheela. “Both here have a protective coating so that they can be cleaned and not get spoiled after any accidental spillage,” Varanasi said as workers set up the beds at the vast Radha Soami Spiritual Centre.

The Dhawan brothers have not publicly revealed the price tag of making each bed, but it reportedly costs around $10. Once the coronavirus epidemic is over, they see a market for their product. “I think 50 to 60 of our own workers have taken it home and are very happy using it every day,” said Dhawan. “It costs the amount you’d spend each time you go out to eat at a restaurant.”

America’s top infectious diseases expert has warned the United States is facing a “serious problem” from a resurgent coronavirus as the illness puts the brakes on reopening two of the country’s largest states. Texas and Florida closed bars and reimposed other curbs on Friday as the number of infections in the US hit a single-day record with increases in 16 states, mostly in the south and west.

The contagion also continued its march through Latin America, where Brazil recorded another 1,140 deaths and Argentina toughened a lockdown in the capital Buenos Aires. In Europe countries wrangled over plans to partially reopen the EU border, with officials fretting over the reliability of virus data from abroad, notably China, where COVID-19 first emerged late last year. Much of the Western world is pressing ahead with lifting restrictions on daily life despite warnings from health officials that haste could cost more lives.

“We are facing a serious problem in certain areas,” leading US immunologist Anthony Fauci said at the first briefing in two months by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. “The only way we’re going to end it is by ending it together,” he said of the outbreak. The US is recording more than 30,000 cases daily. With nearly 125,000 lives lost, it has by far the highest confirmed death toll in the world.

Panic-buying has also reared its ugly head again, with supermarkets in Australia imposing limits on purchases of toilet paper after people snapped up masses of stock, rattled by a surge in cases in Melbourne. “Stop it, it’s ridiculous,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his compatriots.

Companies in the United Arab Emirates and Israel will join forces to research and develop technology to fight the novel coronavirus, the two countries, which have no official diplomatic ties, said Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke the news of an impending collaboration between the Jewish state and the Arab Gulf country, following “prolonged and intense contacts”.

“This collaboration will be in the areas of research and development and technology, in areas that will improve health security throughout the region,” Netanyahu said in a statement. Hours later the Emirati state news agency WAM confirmed the plan. “Two private companies in the UAE sign(ed) an agreement with two companies in Israel to develop research and technology to fight COVID-19,” WAM said.

“This scientific and medical agreement forms part of constructive cooperation aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to safeguard the health of the region’s peoples. As a result of the pandemic’s spread worldwide, it is imperative to place the protection of humanity at the forefront of global action to overcome this unprecedented crisis,” WAM added. The names of the companies were not immediately revealed and there were few other details.

Hind Al-Otaiba, director of strategic communications at the UAE foreign ministry, likewise reported that an agreement had been signed by firms in Israel and the UAE to develop research and technology to fight the virus. Jordan and Egypt aside, Arab countries have no official relations with Israel. But Arab states in the Gulf, including the UAE, have increasingly built informal ties with Israel in recent years amid shared concerns over Iran, which the Jewish state considers its arch-enemy.

“The stronger we are, the more powerful we are at deterring our enemies and bringing our friends closer,” Netanyahu said in his statement. The Israeli premier’s remarks came just days before the Jewish state intends to kick-start US-backed plans to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley. That plan has sparked the fury of the Palestinians and drawn international condemnation.

On Wednesday the United Nations, European and Arab powers warned Israel that the annexation plan would deal a major blow to peace. Arab countries have repeatedly called for a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a condition for normalizing ties with the Jewish state.

Earlier this month, a flight undertaken by Etihad Airways – the UAE’s flag carrier – laden with Covid-19 related medical supplies for the Palestinians made a rare landing in Tel Aviv. But the aid was refused by the Palestinians as the UAE had coordinated with Israel rather than with the Palestinian Authority. Israel has confirmed more than 22,000 cases of coronavirus, including over 300 deaths, since reporting its first infection in February, and is now facing a new spike. The UAE has officially reported more than 45,000 cases, including 302 deaths. – Agencies