Dr Ashita Rebecca Singh, head of medicine at Chinchpada Christian Hospital in a remote part of Maharashtra state, said she had seen Covid patients with branding marks on their abdomen from witch doctors attempting to drive out the “evil spirit” they believe causes the infection.
Others have relied on “indigenous medicine” such as herbal remedies and “ancient beliefs”, according to the doctor, while some have run away from their villages because they think an evil spirit is to blame for people dying.
And of those who do seek help from the hospital, which has increased its capacity from 50 beds to 82, many come only as a last resort and end up dying at the gates because it is too late, she said.
Dr Singh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “[There is] a lot of dependence on indigenous medicine, a lot of ancient beliefs, so we still have a lot of patients who are on our wards right now on high-flow oxygen who actually have branding marks on their abdomen because they first went to the witch doctor who gave them hot iron branding in the hope the evil spirit that is supposed to be causing this illness will be exorcised.
“We hear of people who have run away from their villages because they think that an evil spirit has come and that is why people are dying.
“These are traditional beliefs. This is actually their first port of call when they are ill.
“Only a small proportion will come to the doctors; the others will go to the witch doctor or the indigenous practitioner who will give them herbal medication for their illnesses.
“Because of this, a lot of time is wasted and people come in really late and very sick and many of them never come to the hospital.
“What we see in the hospital is really just the tip of the iceberg.”
In some cases, people are reportedly also turning to unproven medical treatments in a desperate bid to save their loved ones, and in others to the black market for life-saving medications that are in short supply.
It comes as India's total Covid-19 cases passed 18 million on Thursday after another world record number of daily infections.
The world's second most populous nation is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed.
Gravediggers have been working around the clock to bury victims, while hundreds are cremated in makeshift pyres in parks and car parks.
Additional reporting by agencies