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India's COVID cases top 5 million as it narrows gap with US

Asia's third-largest economy slowly reopens but struggles to impose safety rules

People wearing face masks stand in line to enter a metro station amid the coronavirus pandemic in New Delhi on Sept. 14.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India, the world's second worst-hit country by the coronavirus pandemic after the U.S., on Wednesday crossed another grim milestone by surpassing five million total COVID-19 cases, less than two weeks after exceeding the four million-mark.

The country, which reported its first case on Jan. 30, has now become the global COVID-19 hot spot with the fastest growing caseload. India's health ministry said in its latest update that the country's tally jumped to 5.02 million after 90,123 new infections were reported in the past 24 hours. The death toll, meanwhile, reached 82,066 on 1,290 new fatalities, the biggest single-day spike.

The U.S. now has nearly 6.6 million infections while its death toll has exceeded 195,000. India's coronavirus trajectory suggests that it may surpass the U.S. within weeks to become the most affected nation globally.

India's active cases, meanwhile, are only one-fifth of its total confirmed infections as 78% of patients have recovered. The number of cases and deaths per million population in the country are 3,573 and 58, respectively, which is "among the lowest in the world," health secretary Rajesh Bhushan told a media briefing on Tuesday evening.

Maharashtra -- India's richest state and the only one with over a million infections -- accounted for 29.5% of total active cases on Tuesday, followed by Karnataka at 9.9% and Andhra Pradesh with 9.4%, according to health ministry data. India, with over 1.3 billion people, consists of 28 states and eight union territories.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which imposed a strict nationwide lockdown on Mar. 25 to curb the spread of the virus, has been gradually reopening the economy, particularly since June, to encourage business revival. India's gross domestic product contracted 23.9% year-on-year in the April-June period, the worst quarter on record.

India has so far conducted over 58 million COVID-19 tests, with present testing capacity crossing a million per day. The government is emphasizing on mandatory retesting of symptomatic people whose rapid antigen tests show negative results.

"We believe in the philosophy of 'chase the virus'," said Bhushan. "But to chase the virus, it is necessary that you must catch the missing persons. Who are these missing persons? They are the ones who are symptomatic negative in the rapid antigen test and have not undergone [retesting through] RT-PCR." That refers to reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction testing, which is considered the "gold standard" probe to detect the virus.

Meanwhile, Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Balram Bhargava told the same briefing that India's "effective lockdown" in late March, April and May helped it keep its mortality rate low and avoid "a huge peak" of infections as witnessed by the European countries and the U.S. "Fortunately," he added, India learned from the experiences of those countries.

Harsh Vardhan, India's health minister, also told Parliament on Monday that the nationwide lockdown was "a bold decision" that helped prevent about 1.4 million to 2.9 million cases and 37,000 to 78,000 deaths.

Despite these measures, India continues to witness an increase in cases as many people are still not taking COVID-19 safety guidelines seriously. In late August, Bhargava had said "irresponsible people" not using masks and not maintaining social distancing "are driving the pandemic" in the country.

The government feels that citizens are growing lax as the country loosens restrictions and is continuously urging them to wear masks, wash their hands, get tested if symptomatic and avoid large gatherings. But many people can still be seen without face coverings or any other precaution against COVID-19 on roads and in public places.

Migrant workers walk along a railway track to return to their home state of West Bengal during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Ahmedabad, India on May 11.   © Reuters

Meanwhile, the government has drawn criticism for its statement in Parliament on Monday that it had no data on deaths and job losses among daily wage-earning migrant workers during the lockdown. Soon after its imposition, economic activity came to a grinding halt, rendering those workers -- mostly employed at construction sites -- jobless. That forced them to abandon cities and walk to their hometowns and villages before the government started running special trains for them.

"The Modi government doesn't know how many migrant workers died and how many jobs were lost during the lockdown," Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of the main opposition Indian National Congress party, tweeted in Hindi. "You didn't count, so nobody died?... The world saw them dying but the government had no clue."

According to SaveLife Foundation, a non-government organization, 198 migrant workers died in road accidents during the lockdown.

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