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Is it too early for India to ease COVID-19 restrictions?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
June 1, 2020

Despite a surge in COVID-19 infections, the Indian government plans to lift lockdown measures, which were imposed to contain the virus spread. Health experts are skeptical of the move. Murali Krishnan reports.

Migrant workers in India
Image: DW/M. Kumar

India has so far recorded over 190,000 coronavirus cases. The country registered its highest single-day tally on Sunday with 8,380 new infections, according to figures released by Johns Hopkins University.

Despite a record-high number of cases detected nationwide, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is set to lift lockdown measures in some places from June 8.

However, the Interior Ministry said the lockdown would be extended in high-risk "containment areas" until June 30.

Starting next week, restaurants, hotels, shopping centers and places of worship will be allowed to reopen in many parts of the country, followed by the resumption of schools and colleges in July. Cinemas, gyms, swimming pools, parks, auditoriums and similar places will remain closed indefinitely.

Authorities will be expected to ensure physical distancing rules and staggered business hours.

Read more: India restarts domestic air travel after a two-month gap, amid chaos

While the COVID-19 case fatality rate in India has been comparatively low, experts warned that the pandemic's peak has not been reached as new infections are increasing.

Lockdown measures have been in place since March, but the country loosened some restrictions this month.

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Crisis averted?

Experts believe it will be a challenge for the Indian government to contain the coronavirus spread once the lockdown measures are lifted.

The South Asian nation has so far recorded more than 5,400 coronavirus-related deaths and over 90,000 people have reportedly recovered from the disease. Medics and health experts believe that an early lockdown prevented between 37,000 and 78,000 deaths and at least 1.4 million COVID-19 cases.

"We cannot go back to our old ways; it would be a recipe for disaster," V K Paul, chairman of the national task force against COVID-19, told DW. "We have contained the coronavirus spread and the number of related deaths in India," he added.

Read more: Citizenship law: Is India using COVID-19 emergency to arrest protesters?

Phased exit in India

Paul denied the government was using "herd immunity" as a strategy against COVID-19. "The mortality rate as a result of herd immunity could be too high," he said.

A majority of the active cases in India have been recorded in five states — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh — and in five cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad, according to official data.

"The 2.8% mortality rate is much lower than the global 6%. There is hope that the outbreak in India may not be as deadly as it has been in some other countries, thanks to the early gains from the nationwide lockdown," Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told DW.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country's top medical body, believes the coronavirus situation in India is not grave.

"We were concerned about coronavirus deaths. We have managed to keep the numbers down. We will now ramp up testing," said ICMR's Director General Balram Bhargava.

Read more: Eid festivities raise coronavirus surge fears in South Asia

The rural challenge

Prime Minister Modi said India was on the path to victory in its battle against the virus, in an open letter on Saturday, marking the first year of his government's second term.

While Modi acknowledged that laborers and migrant workers had "undergone tremendous suffering" due to the lockdown restrictions, he asked the nation to show "firm resolve."

Read more: Coronavirus: Indian states abandon labor protection to revive economy

The government's Rapid Response Team (RRT) has advised local health authorities to pay attention to a possible rise of coronavirus cases in rural areas as an estimated 20-25 million migrant workers are making their way back to their villages.

A surge in cases in villages and small towns could prove to be a tremendous challenge for Indian authorities as the country's rural areas are ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus: India's lockdown turning into humanitarian crisis

Indian health workers face danger

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Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11