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Pandemic spreads, pushing Indians to crisis point

As Covid-19 spreads across Indian villages from cities, the government finds consolation in low death rates

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: July 25, 2020 04:23 AM GMT
Pandemic spreads, pushing Indians to crisis point

Children collect rice and lentils from a school in Chennai on July 24 as part of a government free meal program for schoolchildren during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP)

The Covid-19 pandemic turned into a multidimensional crisis for India when it began to add nearly 40,000 cases daily by mid-July.

The crisis has forced its 1.3 billion people to face the challenges of malnutrition, limitations in the healthcare system, political infighting, irrational decisions, joblessness and economic depression.

According to official figures, India reported 45,700 new cases on July 23, its highest daily spike. Of some 1.2 million people infected, some 30,000 have died and more than 800,000 have recovered. But with thousands of new cases being added daily, the situation is turning grave.

The pandemic poses a threat to the future of 600 million children in South Asia, and the crisis could push an additional 120 million children in the region — the bulk of them from India — into poverty, according to a UNICEF report.

Infections have spread across Indian villages with hardly any modern medical equipment, and health experts are predicting the death rates to spike in the weeks and months to come.

India now holds the third-highest number of cases after the US and Brazil, but India has had relatively low death rates, giving some consolation to the government.

While deaths per million are 445 in the US and 396 in Brazil, the figure is only 22 in India. Globally, the death rate is 87 per million, according to data site worldometers.info

India's Health Ministry said "the recovery rates have crossed 63 percent spread across 19 states and provinces."

However, panic is spreading to several states and cities, with governments considering plans to introduce total or partial lockdowns to help save lives.

In northeast India, Manipur state announced a total lockdown for 14 days from July 23. Several southern states where cases are multiplying have hundreds of containment zones that are entirely under lockdown.

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India's commercial capital Mumbai, where more than 10,000 new cases began to be added daily in mid-July, is facing a near-collapse of its administrative and healthcare systems.

Patients complain of lack of space in hospitals and the non-availability of ambulances or vehicles to transport critical patients in the city. Health staff complain of overwork and lack of rest, protection kits and adequate compensation.

Lack of organization results in dead bodies getting mixed up, while relatives complain of missing bodies of their dear ones.

The situation is not much different in cities like New Delhi and Chennai.

In the country's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, rainwater flooded inside a hospital treating Covid-19 patients. Water flowed under beds as patients lay in helpless conditions.

India's economy was already in the doldrums when the pandemic began to bite. And the economic disruption because of the nationwide lockdown nearly devastated industry and the job market.

A study by the State Bank of India estimated a contraction of over 40 percent in GDP in the April-June quarter. The overall recession during the Covid-19 pandemic has been the worst since Indian independence in 1947, studies show.

Since India began its lockdown on March 25, at least 140 million people have lost their jobs. More than 45 percent of households across India reported an income drop as India began the "unlocking" process on June 1.

Although the lockdown was lifted, restrictions continue in all public activities. Indians have practically no social life as gatherings and eating out in restaurants have been banned across the country for almost four months.

Some social observers like Assam-based Geeta Borah wonder why a populous democratic country like India has struggled when smaller autocratic nations such as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam have fared better.

"Covid19 needs studies on several fronts," she said. "Coronavirus has hit hard in countries with temperate climates where malaria is practically non-existent. But in Southeast Asia and subtropical regions where malaria is endemic, the impact was less." 

In rural India and at a global level, societies or states with a strong government apparatus and effective political and social leadership have been impressive in tackling the pandemic, she noted

She could not see any fixed pattern. In some cases, democracies have done well with people's participation. But in other instances, autocracies have done well, she said.

As India struggles, the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim the country has successfully fought the war against Covid-19.

"The world is seeing that if a successful battle has been fought anywhere across the globe against the coronavirus, it is India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said federal Home Minister Amit Shah, a close confidant of Modi.

He said given India's large population of more than a billion, "many had feared how a large country like India would face this challenge … but we have proved the prophets of doom wrong," he said.

Not many opposition leaders will agree.

Last month Congress leader Rahul Gandhi flayed Modi and said: "The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance."

The pandemic "is spreading rapidly into new parts of the country" but the government "has no plan to defeat it. PM is silent. He has surrendered and is refusing to fight the pandemic," Gandhi tweeted.

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