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October 12, 2020

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Coronavirus infections in India top 7 million, set to pass US in weeks

India’s confirmed COVID-19 infections crossed 7 million yesterday with the number of new cases dipping in recent weeks, even as health experts warn of mask and distancing fatigue setting in.

The country is expected to become the pandemic’s worst-hit country in the coming weeks, surpassing the US, where more than 7.7 million infections have been reported.

The Health Ministry registered another 74,383 infections in the previous 24 hours. It also reported 918 additional deaths, taking the total to 108,334.

The number of people who have died of COVID-19 has remained relatively low in South and Southeast Asia — from India to Vietnam — compared with European countries and the United States, said Dr Randeep Guleria, a government health expert.

“We have been able to keep the rise slow, but I agree we have not been able to get it to move aggressively down. That’s related to our population density, diversity and socio-economic challenges,” said Guleria.

Some experts say that India’s death toll may not be reliable because of poor reporting and health infrastructure and inadequate testing.

India aims to provide vaccines to 250 million people by July 2021, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said last week. He said the government planned to receive 450 million to 500 million doses and would ensure “equitable access.”

India saw a steep rise in cases in July and added more than 2 million in August and another 3 million in September. But it is seeing a slower spread since mid-September, when the infections touched a record high of 97,894.

It’s averaging more than 70,000 cases daily so far this month. The country has a high recovery rate of 85 percent with active cases below 1 million.

Health officials have warned about the potential for the virus to spread during the upcoming religious festival season, which is marked by huge gatherings in temples and shopping districts.

Dr SP Kalantri, a hospital director in the village of Sevagram in the worst-hit western Maharashtra state, said people in his village had stopped wearing masks, maintaining distance or washing their hands regularly.

India’s meager health resources are poorly divided across the country. Nearly 600 million Indians live in rural areas, and with the virus hitting India’s vast hinterlands, experts worry that hospitals could be overwhelmed.

“If we are able to have good behavior in terms of physical distancing and masks, maybe by early next year we should be able to come to a new normal. COVID-19 will not finish but it will be under reasonable control with travel and other things becoming much easier and people relatively safer,” said Guleria.

Retired virologist Dr T. Jacob John said there was increasing tendency among Indians not to wear masks or maintain distancing.

Social media have compounded the problem by propagating misinformation and fake cures. “And the result of this is that people have gotten fed up and have started making their own conclusions,” John said.

Nationwide, India is testing more than 1 million samples per day, exceeding the World Health Organization’s benchmark of 140 tests per 1 million people. But many of these are antigen tests, which look for virus proteins and are faster but less accurate than RT-PCR, which confirms the coronavirus by its genetic code.

With the economy contracting by a record 23.9 percent in the April-June quarter, leaving millions jobless, the government is continuing to relax lockdown restrictions imposed in late March. In May, a US$266 billion stimulus package was announced, but consumer demand and manufacturing are yet to recover.

Many offices, shops, businesses, liquor stores, bars and restaurants have reopened. Some domestic and international evacuation flights are operating, along with train services.


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