India enacted one of the world’s strictest and earliest national lockdowns, first suspending international air travel and then shutting down the country entirely from late March.
But cases have continued to rise, in part due to increased testing, and prime minister Narendra Modi has had to limit restrictions only to isolated “containment zones” in order to restart the economy.
India now has the world’s third-highest tally of coronavirus cases, overtaking Russia as its total jumped to more than 697,000.
The health ministry reported more than 23,000 new cases on Monday, down slightly from a record increase of almost 25,000 the day before but continuing a trend of adding at least 20,000 cases a day since Thursday.
It comes as India’s healthcare system showed growing signs of strain from the pandemic, with a spate of incidents across the country of Covid-19 patients dying after being turned away from multiple hospitals.
India now sits behind only Brazil, which has just over 1.6 million cases, and the US on nearly 2.9 million cases in terms of the world’s worst-affected nations. Russia has almost 686,800 cases, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.
But India’s death toll remains low relative to its number of cases, at 19,693. That puts it eighth in the world, behind the likes of the UK, France, Spain and Italy.
Experts have attributed this discrepancy to India having a relatively youthful population, as well as chronic issues with the way cause of death is recorded – the government admitted last year that only 22 per cent of deaths in India are medically certified.
As of Monday morning, the healthy ministry said, India has 253,000 active Covid-19 patients and more than 424,400 cases where people have recovered. “Thus, 60.85 per cent of the patients have recovered so far,” the ministry said in a statement.
State-by-state data showed that Maharashtra in western India continues to contribute the greatest number of daily cases. The state, whose capital is the financial hub of Mumbai – the country’s second worst-affected city behind Delhi – reported more than 7,000 new cases for the first time on Saturday, and another 6,555 on Sunday.
But while the growth rate in Maharashtra is lower than the national average and slowing, local media said that the spike in cases since Thursday could partly be put down to rapidly growing outbreaks across southern states which previously had relatively few Covid-19 patients.
No hype, just the advice and analysis you need
In Karnataka, which now has the fastest-rising number of cases in the south, a dedicated helpline was set up on Sunday for people to lodge complaints against hospitals allegedly refusing to admit patients with coronavirus symptoms.
It comes after the high-profile case of a man named Bhawarlal Sujani, who died last month after being turned away from 18 hospitals in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), Karnataka’s state capital, according to his family.
Sujani, 52, and his brother travelling around the city’s hospitals for hours on a motorbike trying to get him admitted, covering a distance of around 120km before the patient finally succumbed to his symptoms and died on the doorstep of the last hospital they tried.
The state has now issued an official notice to nine of the hospitals the family visited, asking why they should not be prosecuted for failing to provide emergency primary care.
At a press conference announcing the new hotline for patients, K Sudhakar, the state health minister, warned private hospitals they would face strict action if they denied admission to coronavirus patients or refused to carry out tests.
“If denied admission, the patient can call 1912. It is a 24-hour helpline number,” Sudhakar told reporters. “Whoever calls the number will get immediate relief.”
Meanwhile, India’s scientific community has expressed alarm over reports that the government wanted to fast-track a homegrown coronavirus vaccine so that it could be launched on India’s Independence Day, 15 August.
A letter emerged from Thursday in which Balram Bhargava, the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), wrote to trial-conducting institutes saying that he “envisaged” a rapid schedule for approval of the potential vaccine Covaxin, which had only been given the green light to begin human trials earlier last week.
In a letter to the trial hospitals and Covaxin’s creator Bharat Biotech, Bhargava said there was an “urgency to launch the vaccine” given the public health emergency and non-compliance would be taken “very seriously”.
But while the ICMR has defended the letter and said 15 August was “not a deadline”, there has been a fierce public backlash from those accusing the government of setting an arbitrary target for the sake of optics.
In a statement, Professor Partha P Majumder,the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, said that while he “welcomes the exciting development of a candidate vaccine”, “as a body of scientists – including many who are engaged in vaccine development – the IASc strongly believes that the announced timeline is unfeasible.
“This timeline has raised unrealistic hope and expectations in the minds of our citizens,” he said.
On Saturday, the US president Donald Trump marked the American Independence Day by declaring that a US vaccine would be ready “long before the end of the year”. The next day, drugs regulation chief Dr Stephen Hahn refused to support such a timeline, saying: “I can’t predict when a vaccine will be available.”
When the pandemic began in January this year, most experts suggested a vaccine would not be ready until mid-2021. Last month, the World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “the estimate is we may have a vaccine within one year”, adding that “if accelerated, it could be even less than that, but by a couple of months. That’s what scientists are saying.”