September 20, 2020

Why next few weeks are critical in India’s coronavirus war

At the weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the next three to four weeks would be “critical” to prevent the spread of coronavirus in India.

Ever since its first case was confirmed on 30 January, India has taken a number of measures to try and combat the coronavirus. It has eased testing eligibility and invoked a draconian 122-year-old colonial-era epidemic diseases law to restrict public gatherings, among other things. Now it is set to extend a strict three-week lockdown – scheduled to end on 15 April – until the end of the month. More than a billion people continue to stay at home and land, rail and air transport remain suspended.

There have been some 180,000 tests for the infection so far. Some 4.3% of the samples have tested positive. The contagion has killed 273 people. It has reportedly spread to nearly half of the country’s 700-odd districts. Several hotspots have been identified.

Global health experts are keenly looking at how India battles the virus. Its dense population, vast geography and weak public health system can easily overwhelm the best efforts to contain the spread of infection. “It is something which is worrying a lot of people, ” a leading virologist told me, insisting on anonymity. “It is early days yet in the trajectory of the virus here. In three to four weeks, the picture will be clearer.”

Economist Shamika Ravi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is closely tracking the infection, believes India is not doing badly. She says the number of active cases is doubling every seven days, a slower rate than before. The death rate is still low but rising.

“Our [infection] growth rate is highly contained despite the fact that we are actively chasing the fire,” she told me. “Almost all of our testing has been driven by protocol, starting with people with travel history, contact tracing of people in touch with them and so on. The probability of getting more positive cases [from this cohort] would have been much higher.”

Many are also pointing to the lack of reports about any surge in hospital admissions with influenza like illness and Covid-19 patients, which would hint at a rapid community transmission.

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