NEW DELHI – The Indian capital, which just a few weeks ago suffered the devastating force of the coronavirus, with tens of thousands of new infections a day and funeral pyres that have been burning day and night, is taking its first steps towards the normality.
Officials reopened manufacturing and construction activities on Monday, allowing workers in those industries to return to work after six weeks at home to avoid infection. The move came after a sharp drop in new infections, at least according to official figures, and as hospital wards emptied and pressure on drugs and supplies eased.
Life on the streets of Delhi is not expected to return to normal immediately. Schools and most businesses are still closed. Delhi’s metro system, which reopened after last year’s nationwide lockdown, has again suspended service.
But the city government’s easing of restrictions will allow people like Ram Niwas Gupta and his employees to start returning to work – and, more broadly, to start repairing the struggling and pandemic-stricken Indian economy. . Mr Gupta, owner of a construction company, is due to replace migrant workers who fled Delhi when a second wave of coronavirus hit in April, but he was convinced that business would soon return to normal.
“Right now, we won’t be able to start the work, but slowly, in six to ten days, we can mobilize the manpower and the equipment and start the work,” said Mr. Gupta, who is also president of the Builders Association of India in India. Delhi.
At least one million people in Delhi’s construction industry will be able to return to construction sites.
Even a small opening represents a gamble on the part of the municipal authorities. Only 3% of India’s 1.4 billion people are fully immunized. Due to the health infrastructure and limited public reporting, the status of the pandemic in rural areas – including some just outside Delhi – is largely unknown. Experts are already predicting a third wave while warning that the lull in Delhi may just be a respite, not the end, of the second wave.
Six weeks ago, the number of new cases in Delhi was skyrocketing, reaching a peak of 28,395 new infections recorded on April 20. Nearly one in three coronavirus tests came back positive. Hospitals, filled beyond capacity, have driven back crowds of people seeking treatment, with some patients dying right outside the doors. Cremation, the last favorite rite of Hindus, spread over wasteland, with so many bodies burned that the Delhi sky turned ash gray.
The nightmare in the Indian capital appears to be over, at least for now, although cases are increasing elsewhere in the country. The city reported 648 new cases on Monday and about four-fifths of intensive care unit beds were vacant.
Officials in Delhi and across India feel the need to strike a balance between pandemic precautions and economic viability.
On Monday, India released a new round of figures that show the country’s economy grew 1.6% for the three-month period ending in March.
But economists say those numbers, which reflected activity before the full impact of the Fierce Second Wave, are likely unsustainable for the near future.
The Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation also forecast that India’s gross domestic product will decline by at least 7.3 percent in the fiscal year that began in April.
Experts point to two main reasons: India’s prolonged lockdowns and its vaccination rate, which has fallen to just over a million doses per day now, down from around 4 million last month due to limited capacity. the country’s vaccine manufacturing industry.
Although the lockdowns have helped India slow the tide of infections, economists say the restrictions may have to remain in place at least until about 30% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have received a single injection of the vaccine.
“We estimate that India will reach the vaccination threshold by mid-August and, therefore, we expect the restrictions to be extended into the third quarter,” said Priyanka Kishore, head of India and of Southeast Asia at Oxford Economics, in a study. briefing last week. “As a result, we have lowered our growth forecast for 2021.”
She added that supply issues and vaccine hesitation could prevent the country from reaching the 30% threshold by August, which could lead to further economic decline.
An economist said the impact of the country’s shrinking economy would be even more pronounced in rural areas.
“As it stands, the scale, speed and spread of Covid have once again boosted the economy,” said Dr Sunil Kumar Sinha, senior economist at India Ratings and Research, an agency of credit rating. Dr Sinha added that the country’s negative growth forecast for the year was the lowest on record.
The lockdown that began to ease on Monday was nowhere near as severe as the nationwide lockdown imposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year which pushed millions out of towns and areas. rural areas, often on foot because rail and other means of transport had been suspended. Mr Modi has resisted calls from many epidemiologists, including Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to reinstate similar restrictions this year.
But in a nod to last year’s lockdown chaos, throughout Wave 2, basic infrastructure projects across the country, which employ millions of migrant domestic workers, have been exempt from restrictions. . More than 15,000 miles of Indian highway projects, as well as rail and urban metro improvements, continued.
Most private construction sites, however, have been closed, placing workers like Ashok Kumar, a 36-year-old carpenter, in extremely precarious positions.
Mr. Kumar typically earns 700 rupees, or about $ 10 a day, but has been idle at home for the past 40 days, unable to pay rent to an increasingly impatient landlord. He was hoping to get the shot before returning cramped with other workers, but was unable to get a dose at one of the city’s public clinics, which have intermittently closed due to vaccine shortages.
“My first priority is my stomach,” Mr. Kumar said. “If my stomach is not full, I will die even before the crown.”
In a meeting with the city’s disaster management authority on Friday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the lockdown would be eased in phases based on economic need.
“Our priority will be the weaker economic sectors, so we will start with workers, especially migrant workers,” many of whom work in construction and manufacturing, Kejriwal said.
Millions of people in India are already at risk of falling out of the middle class and falling into poverty. The country’s economy was unraveling long before the pandemic due to deep structural problems and the sometimes brash political decisions of Mr. Modi.
Epidemiologists in India have generally endorsed the Delhi government’s approach to lift its lockdown, but have warned that the low number of infections could represent a reprieve – not the end – of the capital’s terrifying second wave.
“This is not a decision that can be questioned on the merits, but obviously they have to take maximum precautions,” said Dr K. Srinath Reddy, chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India.
India has recorded an average of 190,392 reported cases per day over the past week, a drop of more than 50% from the peak on May 9. The death toll also fell, but less precipitously, to 3,709 on Sunday. The overall toll of 325,972 is widely considered a vast undercoverage.
As cases declined in Delhi, people cautiously left their homes for evening walks after the summer heat of the day subsided, or to shop in the normally bustling but now quiet neighborhood markets.
Elsewhere in India, the pandemic is far from over. Cases are increasing in remote rural areas with little health infrastructure.
Haryana state, which borders Delhi and is home to the industrial hub of Gurugram, has extended its strict lockdown for at least an additional week. And in states in southern India where the number of daily cases remains high, official orders to allow manufacturing to resume have met resistance from workers.
“It is a question of life against means of subsistence,” said Mr. Moorthy, general secretary of the workers’ union at the Renault Nissan car factory in Chennai.