NEW DELHI – India reached a milestone on Friday morning that it had made great sacrifices to avoid: recording over a million coronavirus infections.
The virus has made its way through this country of 1.3 billion people and picked up speed, fueled by high population density, an already battered health system and a calculation by the central government to lift a nationwide blockade in the hope of boosting the economy and Run whatever may come.
Since the number of confirmed new infections in India repeatedly reaches record levels, many states and cities have blocked themselves again. In some areas, long rows of bodies snake out of the cremation sites. India currently records around 30,000 new infections every day – more than any other country except the United States and Brazil – and catches up with Brazil.
India now has the third highest total number of cases – 1,003,832 cases and 25,602 deaths – to the United States and Brazil. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers estimate that India will be the most affected country in the world by the end of next year.
"We paid a price for negligence" said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, a nonprofit organization of public health experts and scientists.
Approximately 25,000 deaths have been officially attributed to Covid-19, but testing remains sparse, so the actual number could be significantly higher.
Schools and universities have been closed since March, with no clear plans for reopening. Almost 278 million students don't have much to do.
The central government recently advised school systems to limit online learning to a few hours a day. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, India's minister for human resources development, said this was necessary to ensure that students were not "overwhelmed or stressed".
More than 100 million Indians have lost their jobs. The economy, which had deep cracks even before the pandemic, is expected to shrink by up to 9.5 percent in the year beginning on April 1. This is an amazing reversal from the last decade when India had one of the hottest economies on earth.
In the early days of the pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly took action. He advised masks and social distancing. At a time when India had fewer than 1,000 known infections – although the true number was certainly higher – it imposed a strict nationwide ban that would take almost three months.
Millions of migrant workers who had been interested in jobs in cities over the years suddenly had little or no work. They flocked back to the countryside from the cities, hoping to be able to rely on relatives in their home villages to survive. They spread coronavirus infections in almost every corner of India.
When the economic pain really started to break, Mr. Modi changed course. Last month, he urged leaders of 28 Indian states and 8 territories to "unlock, unlock, unlock".
Public health experts say that Mr Modi should have reversed it and should have waited until the crisis has progressed before imposing a strict ban.
The premature lock was "premature and did nothing" because the virus had not yet spread at the time, said Dr. Anand Krishnan, professor of epidemiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. "Now is the time to implement such drastic public health measures."
The most affected areas are India's largest cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Ahmedabad and the Bengaluru Technology Center. The crowded urban areas, in which many families live eight or even ten people per room, make social distancing almost impossible and accelerate the spread of the highly contagious corona virus.
Officials in the northeastern state of Bihar imposed a two-week ban on Thursday after a sudden surge in cases – more than 20,000 in 24 hours. Bihar is a source for migrant workers across India. The increase in Bihar's cases correlates with the return of workers from distant cities.
A sharp increase in cases has also forced a new closure in Goa, a state on the west coast of India that is famous for its beaches, just a few weeks after it reopened for tourists, a lifeline to the state economy.
In its largest city, Thiruvananthapuram, the southern state of Kerala, which had largely successfully controlled the spread of the virus, extended the blocking restrictions by a week after the cases had almost doubled within a few days.
"We need to focus more on the new COVID-19 hotspot in South Asia," said a statement by John Fleming, an official from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "The life of people in India is no less valuable than that of people in other parts of the world."
Mr Modi and senior government officials have repeatedly said in television speeches that India is doing better than the richer countries, particularly in terms of mortality. India has reported about 20 coronavirus deaths per million people, while many other nations, including the United States, Brazil, Spain, and Italy, have lost hundreds per million.
"I don't think it has anything to do with how the government dealt with the pandemic," said Dr. Krishnan. Instead, the average age of India is younger than that of other countries, and obesity and diabetes, which increase people's susceptibility to the virus, are less common here.
The Indian Medical Association said that Covid-19 killed 99 doctors.
"If mortality in Covid needs to be reduced, it has to start with doctors," the organization said in a press release on Wednesday.
Public health experts say India still does not have a transparent and robust mechanism to respond to a crisis of this magnitude. And what is needed, they say, is an energetic and energetic response from both government and citizens.
"Opening shopping centers and allowing large religious gatherings is not the way to go," said Reddy. "You can't give the virus a highway to travel with."