India Opens Public Places as Pandemic Rages
By Anjana Pasricha June 08, 2020
India signaled that it is ready for business as shopping malls, religious places and offices reopened in most places Monday amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world's second most populous country is now the fifth most affected nation and health experts have warned that new infections will continue to ravage the country for weeks.
Even as they reopened, the worst-affected Indian cities took extra precautions amid fears that their health infrastructure can no longer cope with the daily spike in new infections.
In the capital New Delhi, authorities said hotels will continue to remain shut in case they have to be converted into temporary hospitals. "Our cases are rising each day; we could run out of beds," Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said.
Mumbai was even more cautious – it kept shopping malls shut and allowed offices to reopen with only ten percent staff. Although authorities put buses back on streets, train services, the city's lifeline, are still suspended.
Strict new rules in public places include temperature screening, wearing masks and maintaining a distance of at least two meters.
The Indian government has been under pressure to ease the stringent ten-week lockdown that has extracted a huge economic price, especially on poor people.
But in a signal that India's economic recovery will be tough, some businesses said they are not ready to open shutters despite the green signal from the government. Among them are restaurants that are significant job creators.
Priyank Sukhija, the chief executive of First Fiddle Restaurants, who has several restaurants in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, said he will "wait and watch" before reopening. This is partly because he feels safety concerns will keep customers away while infections are spiking, and partly because of new rules that require restaurants to shut early and restrictions on serving liquor.
"For bar-oriented restaurants, a majority of our sales comes from liquor. If we cannot sell liquor and have to shut by 9 pm, then we are not even looking at 5 to 10 percent business of our pre-Covid era. That spells doom," said Sukhija.
Amid the record daily spikes witnessed in recent days, not many people are venturing out. Only a handful of devotees turned up to offer prayers in temples, mosques and Sikh holy shrines, where throngs of worshipers used to be a common sight before coronavirus made people shun crowds.
At the historic Jama Mosque in New Delhi, the carpet was replaced with floor markings to ensure social distancing among worshipers. Traditions such as touching idols and holy books or customary offerings of food and holy water have been temporarily stopped.
India had reported more than a quarter of a million cases by Sunday but many health experts believe the number is much higher due to low levels of testing -- the country of 1.3 billion people has tested less than one percent of its population. More than 7,000 people have died due to coronavirus.
The numbers will continue to rise exponentially for several weeks as infections will only peak by end of July or early August, according to several health experts.
While the lockdown gave time to authorities to prepare the health infrastructure, it could not halt the spread of infections because only the middle class and rich people could observe certain guidelines like social distancing, according to prominent virologist Jacob John, who had warned in April that India will have to cope with an "avalanche."
"Every city has some corner where no lockdown will work, because people live in one-room houses. Lockdown means nothing to them, they sometimes even wash and cook in the street. So it was a very leaky lockdown," says John. "Lifting of the lockdown should have happened two months ago, it is already too late."
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