Mapping the COVID-19 Outbreak in India

The outbreak of COVID-19 is being deemed as one of the greatest trigger events of current times that might drastically change the global political, economic, and social outlook. Increased morbidity resulting into mortality is an unfortunate yet an obvious outcome. However, the other outcome that these extra-ordinary times may behold is the unveiling of sheer unpreparedness and incapacity of many economically and politically well-to-do states in devising their national responses to this chaotic crisis. While several East Asian states grappled well with the spread of this virus, Italy and Spain in Europe and then the United States (US) became the epicentres of the disease. As the virus enters South Asia, it brings to test the durability of economic, political, and medical infrastructures of South Asian states. This piece exclusively focuses the outbreak of COVID-19 in India not only because it is territorially the largest, economically the strongest and most densely populous country in the South Asian region, but also because India is being feared to be more severely hit by the pandemic than China and Italy.

Increased morbidity resulting into mortality is an unfortunate yet an obvious outcome.

India’s first COVID-19 case was reported in with on January 30. Following this, the country reported only five more cases till March 3. On March 5, India recorded its first hike, with 22 cases being reported across the country. India recorded around 100 positive cases for the first time on March 23, following which the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a 21-day state-wide lockdown.

The COVID-19 outbreak in India occurred alongside Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, and Belgium. However, its spread rate has been recorded to be relatively low. Currently, the country hosts the largest number of COVID-19 cases in South Asia. As of April 6, India has 4,260 active cases with 382 recoveries and 136 fatalities. As of India’s national database on coronavirus, the largest number of cases has been reported in the state of Maharashtra followed by Tamil Nadu and Delhi. Currently, the average spread rate of the infection is 75 positive cases per day. Estimates delineate that the spread rate as well as the death associated with COVID-19 is much lesser in India than many other states.

As much as the incidence of COVID-19 cases low across South Asian states, lack of testing and comprehensive reporting remain a ground reality. Ironically countries with highest testing rates, like South Korea and Taiwan have reported the lowest incidences, whereas, testing rates in severely-hit countries remain lesser than required. In India, the testing rate is abysmally low. At the onset of the outbreak, the state reportedly opted for “selective testing” that denied testing of locally transmitted suspects. On 25 March, Indian Council of Medical Research expressed that the country had undertaken around 25,000 tests, delineating India’s test rate to be nearly 18 tests per million persons. This has raised the fear that the actual number of COVID-19 positive cases might be far greater than the recorded ones. However, the testing rate is expected to rise in coming days following the introduction of antibody tests.

Currently, the average spread rate of the infection is 75 positive cases per day.

The Indian model to curb the spread of COVID-19 within the country is characterised by an abruptly-announced state-wide lockdown that is currently being implemented on highly strict basis. Further, the government has banned all international passenger flights till 14 April. The government has suspended the issuance of visas to citizens of East Asian and European states most hardly hit by the pandemic and has closed its border with Myanmar. To relieve the poverty-stricken wage earners and low-income citizens, the Indian Prime Minister also announced an economic stimulus package worth £19 billion on 26 March. The package constitutes merely one percent of India’s total Gross Domestic Product and is expected to benefit around 800 million Indian citizens.

However, the lockdown in India has come at its cost. As supply chains and transportation facilities severed, thousands of India’s inter-state migrants set their path back to their home states on foot. In order to restrict movement, the Indian police force has employed measures as coercive as physical assaults and firing. A number of Indian citizens have already succumbed to death due to starvation, trekking back to their home states, and police-led violence during the lockdown.

Despite the strict lockdown, the number of COVID-19 positive cases is increasing across the country. Some of the major obstacles that India currently faces are high population density, lack of medical capacity, and an economy in decline. India is the world’s second largest population which is densely located across the country. A high population density raises the spread rate of the infection. In terms of economy, while India was already undergoing a decline in its economic growth, the current outbreak and subsequent lockdown, as it halts market activity, is expected to increase inflation and poverty rate. Similarly, in terms of medical care, the country already lacked sustenance-level staff. A 2019 research conducted by Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy found that India faced a shortage of around 600,000 doctors and two million nurses. Currently, medical staffers across India have not been provided sufficient personal protective equipment. Further, quarantines are as ill-equipped that they lack basic sanitation facilities. Additionally, India houses the largest number of tuberculosis patients in the world. These patients therefore form a huge stratum of vulnerable population in the country.

In order to restrict movement, the Indian police force has employed measures as coercive as physical assaults and firing.

Predicting the trajectory of an infectious disease scientifically can be fraught with errors as many societal factors are difficultly probed and incorporated. The susceptible-exposed-infectious-recovered infectious disease epidemiology model developed by Gabriel Goh calculates the future projection of epidemics. This model suggests that COVID-19 might infect around 15,000 people leaving around 300 Indian citizens in the best-case scenario. However, in worst-case scenario might infect approximately 180 million leaving a little over five million dead.

While the Indian administration was certainly caught off guard by the pandemic, a complete lockdown entailing an utter disregard of the poor might massively affect its social and economic fabric in the longer run. The government therefore needs to increase the speed and enhance the delivery of relief to the masses. The state can incentivise its private sector to take up corporate social responsibility to provide breathing space to national economy. Expansion of preventive healthcare infrastructure on an immediate basis might be a far-fetched option however, social distancing can definitely be opted to reduce the spread of the infectious disease. Extraordinary situations demand extra ordinary responses. The crisis therefore, calls for a well-coordinated and harmonised response from all sectors of Indian state and society.

Maryam Raashed

Maryam Raashed is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is a graduate of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

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