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Coronavirus dampens India's independence celebrations

Seerat Chabba New Delhi
August 14, 2020

The Indian government has scaled down this year's independence festivities due to rising coronavirus cases in the country. The South Asian country's future depends on its response to the pandemic.

Independence Day market in Kolkata during coronavirus crisis
Image: DW/S. Bandyopadhyay

PM Modi marks India's Independence Day

Instead of large-scale and centralized celebrations, the government this year has opted for smaller ceremonies across the country to mark India's Independence Day. The reason behind it is the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a heavy toll on the country's society and economy.

The coronavirus infection rate in India has been rapidly rising since the government began to ease lockdown restrictions in mid-May. The country has so far registered close to 2.5 million COVID-19 cases and over 48,000 related deaths.

India has the third-largest coronavirus caseload in the world, which is behind only the United States and Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has praised New Delhi's response to the pandemic, but India is still far from containing the coronavirus spread. Physical distancing measures are still in place in many parts of the country and large gatherings could result in even higher infections.

Facemasks, social distancing and virtual events thus mark this year's Independence Day celebrations on August 15.

Read more: Coronavirus in India: Is public negligence causing surge in cases?

Scaled-down festivities

Authorities have issued multiple public guidelines to ensure that the celebrations will not cause a spike in cases. They have urged citizens to celebrate Independence Day at home and avoid risking their safety by stepping out unless it is absolutely necessary.

On August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a relatively small ceremony at Delhi's famous Red Fort and addressed the nation soon after. Only 250 guests were in attendance at the ceremony.

According to local media, around 350 police officials from Delhi took part in the ceremony after having spent time in quarantine to reduce the risk of infection.

Read more: India's aspirations 70 years ago and now

At the August 13 rehearsal, Indian soldiers held a parade by keeping a safe distance from each other. They also wore face masks that matched the color of their uniforms — khaki, olive green, blue and white, showcasing the three components of the Indian military — the army, the air force and the navy, respectively.

India economy to see 'very long weakness'

In previous years, thousands of schoolchildren participated in the Red Fort ceremony, but only a limited number of schoolchildren are allowed to be at the venue this year.

As schools are closed due to the pandemic, schoolchildren will get an opportunity to participate in online celebrations.

"We have held online activities for students throughout the week," Sapna Dhawan, a dean at the Delhi Public School in Gurgaon, told DW. "We'll have a virtual flag hoisting event, followed by our principal's address. We'll also show a video, which has been put together remotely by students."

Race against time

In a recent interview with DW, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO's regional director for Southeast Asia, praised India's efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic considering its huge and diverse population.

"India took bold decisions such as screening people at ports of entries, tracing contacts, training health workers, scaling up testing capacities, preparing health facilities and engaging with communities," Singh said. "The early nationwide lockdown helped authorities scale up healthcare facilities. The decision to produce protective gear locally to meet the ongoing and future needs for medical supplies showed the country was geared for the long haul," she added.

Read more: Why is India denying COVID-19 community transmission?

Despite these praiseworthy measures, India faces a big challenge to deal with the pandemic. Indian authorities don't want to take any risk as the country's economy is undergoing a difficult phase.

IHS Markit chief economist Rajiv Biswas told DW that protected lockdowns amid resurgent coronavirus infections will continue to hit the Indian economy in the months ahead.

Biswas, however, said that vaccine investment provides a glimmer of hope.

Last month, India's top health agency said the country should have a coronavirus vaccine ready in time for Independence Day. Balram Bhargava, the director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), ordered 12 hospitals to begin clinical trials of India's coronavirus candidate vaccine, Covaxin.

Bhargava's order came as a surprise, and India's scientific community stressed that the extraordinarily short timeline was unfeasible. Some experts interpreted the ICMR diktat as being a political ploy for Modi to win points by being able to announce an Indian vaccine to the nation during his Independence Day speech.

Following public outcry, the ICMR sought to backtrack and clarify its comments, saying the August date was "not a deadline" and was merely an attempt to cut "red tape" and not an attempt to compromise on safety trials.

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