As India completes the first week of a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, a few teething challenges are coming to the fore. First, it has become evident that the lockdown isn’t proving enough to flatten the curve so far as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country continues to spike.
But that’s just a part of the bigger problem as millions of poor Indians have been left stranded on the roads, increasing the risk of the spread as they jump into crowded buses to return to their villages. India’s poor healthcare system is already stretched, running the risk of a total meltdown if novel coronavirus cases start spreading at a higher rate.
Coronavirus cases in India have shot up alarmingly over the past week. On March 24, India had 571 cases of the COVID-19 disease. That number now stands at 1,466 as of April 1. The health ministry points out that India has managed to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread as India took 12 days to go from 100 cases to 1,000 cases.
This looks favorable when compared to developed countries, where the number of cases shot up by 3,500 to 8,000 over a similar period, according to the ministry. Lav Agarwal, India’s joint health secretary told the Economic Times:
These are all developed nations and the population is less than India. We have been able to restrict the number of cases because of our social distancing norms followed by the people and the pre-emptive approach of government. But, at the same time, we cannot be complacent and reduce our level of alertness.
But the problem is that India has tested only 42,788 samples so far as of this writing, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is 36 percent of the agency’s testing capacity. That’s a poor testing rate for a country of more than 1.3 billion people, indicating that India is testing around 33 people for every one million citizens.
South Korea, a much smaller nation, is reportedly conducting 4,000 tests per million people. It has tested more than 320,000 citizens to successfully contain the outbreak. This poor testing rate has sent the alarm bells ringing among doctors.
Infectious diseases specialist Anup Warrier believes India is currently in an “interval period” before cases start spiking. A doctor looking after coronavirus patients in India’s financial capital of Mumbai told Bloomberg:
If you see the pattern of coronavirus infection in all the countries affected so far, this is the time we expect numbers to climb. I can’t see why India will be any different.
A study by the University of Michigan puts the number of potential novel coronavirus cases in India at 915,000 by the middle of May. That would exceed the current global total.
Jacob John, who was formerly the head of the ICMR’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology, fears the scale of the epidemic in India could cross what we have seen in Iran and Italy.
India’s meagre health infrastructure remains a problem. The country only has only 0.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people as compared to the world average of 2.705 beds. The country’s medical professionals are also suffering from a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), giving rise to fears that doctors could eventually become carriers of the coronavirus disease.
Reports of doctors using motorcycle helmets and torn raincoats as protective equipment are concerning, and the bad news is that they may not be getting respite any time soon. Government hospitals in India have been told that it may take up to a month to procure PPE. India had a shortage of a million protective suits on March 23, and more delays in filling that gap could lead to a surge in cases as doctors themselves remain exposed.
And finally, apart from the virus itself, it is feared that many in India will die out of hunger and poverty. The three-week coronavirus lockdown has brought businesses to a grinding halt and put millions of laborers out of work. Those laborers have been trying to migrate to their villages after loss of employment. The situation is so desperate that many have been forced to walk long distances in sweltering heat as transport remains shut.
Media reports suggest that 22 people have already died while trying to reach their villages. But that number may go up as laborers making as less as $2 a day will now have no means of earning a livelihood and could become casualties in the country’s desperate battle against the novel coronavirus.
This article was edited by Samburaj Das.
Last modified: April 1, 2020 8:19 AM