NEW DELHI – The Indian capital, which only a few weeks ago suffered from the devastating force of the corona virus, with tens of thousands of new infections every day and pyre burning day and night, is taking its first steps back towards normality.
Officials resumed manufacturing and construction on Monday, allowing workers in these industries to return to their jobs 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 when the hospital wards emptied and the burden on medicines and supplies eased.
Life on the streets of Delhi is not expected to return to normal immediately. Schools and most shops are still closed. Delhi’s metro system, which reopened after the nationwide lockdown last year, has ceased operations.
But the city government’s easing of restrictions will allow people like Ram Niwas Gupta and his staff to get back to work – and generally begin repairing India’s troubled, pandemic-ridden economy. Mr Gupta, a construction company owner, has to replace the migrant workers who fled Delhi in April in a second wave of coronavirus, but he was confident that business would soon return to normal.
“We won’t be able to start work right away, but slowly in six to ten days we will be able to mobilize manpower and materials and start working,” said Gupta, who is also president of the Builders Association of India in. is Delhi.
At least one million people in Delhi’s construction sector will be able to return to their jobs.
Even a small opening is a risk city officials take. Only 3 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated. Due to limited health infrastructure and public reporting, the state of the pandemic in rural areas – including some outside of Delhi – is largely unknown. Experts are already predicting a third wave, but warn that the slowdown in Delhi may only be a respite and not the end of the second wave.
Six weeks ago, the number of new cases soared in Delhi, reaching a high of 28,395 newly registered infections on April 20. Almost every third coronavirus test was positive. Hospitals that were congested turned away crowds of people seeking treatment, and some patients died right at the gates. Cremation, the preferred last rite of the Hindus, spread to empty lots, with so many corpses being cremated that the sky over Delhi turned ash gray.
The nightmare in India’s capital seems to be over, at least for the time being, although cases elsewhere in the country are on the rise. The city reported 648 new cases on Monday, around four fifths of the beds in the intensive care unit were free.
Officials in Delhi and across India need to strike a balance between pandemic precautions and economic sustainability.
On Monday, India released a new series of Numbers showing the country’s economy grew 1.6 percent for the three-month period ending March.
However, economists say these numbers, which reflected activity prior to the full impact of the savage second wave, are unlikely to be sustainable in the near future.
The Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation is also forecasting a decline in Indian gross domestic product of at least 7.3 percent for the fiscal year that began in April.
Experts point to two main reasons: India’s ongoing lockdowns and its vaccination rate, which has fallen from around 4 million doses a day last month to just over a million doses due to the country’s limited vaccine production capacity.
Although the lockdowns have helped India slow the surge in infections, economists may have to hold the restrictions in place at least until about 30 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people are vaccinated.
“We expect India to reach vaccination limit in mid to late August and accordingly expect the restrictions to be extended into the third quarter,” said Priyanka Kishore, director of India and Southeast Asia at Oxford Economics, in a study briefing last week. “That is why we have lowered our growth forecast for 2021.”
She added that delivery issues and reluctance to use vaccines could keep the country from hitting the 30 percent threshold by August, which could lead to another economic decline.
An economist said the impact of the country’s shrinking economy would be more pronounced in rural areas.
“From today’s perspective, the scale, speed and spread of Covid has given the economy another boost,” said Dr. Sunil Kumar Sinha, senior economist at India Ratings and Research, a rating agency. Dr. Sinha added that the country’s negative growth projections for the fiscal year are the lowest ever.
The lockdown, which began to loosen on Monday, was nowhere near as severe as the nationwide lockdown imposed by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, which drove millions of people from cities to rural areas, often on foot because of the train and other means of transport have been suspended. Mr. Modi defied the demands of many epidemiologists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the United States National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, to reintroduce similar restrictions this year.
But alluding to the chaos of the lockdown last year, core infrastructure projects across the country employing millions of local migrant workers were exempted from restrictions during the second wave. More than 15,000 miles of Indian highway projects as well as improvements to rail and urban subways continued.
However, most private construction sites have been closed, placing workers like Ashok Kumar, a 36-year-old carpenter, in extremely precarious positions.
Mr. Kumar normally makes 700 rupees, about $ 10 a day, but he has been sitting idle at home for the past 40 days and is unable to pay rent to an increasingly impatient landlord. He was hoping to be vaccinated before returning with other workers, but was unable to secure a dose at one of the city’s public pharmacies, which have been temporarily closed due to a lack of vaccines.
“My first priority is my stomach,” said Mr. Kumar. “If my stomach isn’t full, I’ll die before Corona.”
Understand India’s Covid Crisis
In a meeting with the city’s civil protection agency on Friday, Delhi’s Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the lockdown would be gradually eased depending on economic necessity.
“Our priority will be the weakest sectors of the economy, so we will start with workers, especially migrant workers,” said Kejriwal.
Millions of people in India are already at risk of sliding from the middle class into poverty. The country’s economy was frayed long before the pandemic due to deep structural problems and the sometimes boisterous political decisions made by Mr Modi.
Epidemiologists in India generally agreed with the Delhi government’s approach to lifting the lockdown, but warned that the low infection rates could mark respite from – rather than the end – of the capital’s terrifying second wave.
“It is not a decision that can be questioned, but obviously you have to exercise the utmost care,” said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India.
India had an average of 190,392 reported cases per day last week, a decrease of more than 50 percent from the high on May 9. The death toll also fell, albeit less sharply, to 3,709 on Sunday. The total of 325,972 tolls is generally considered to be a huge shortfall.
As falls in Delhi have receded, people cautiously leave their homes for evening walks after the daytime summer heat subsides or to pick up groceries from the normally busy but now quiet neighborhood markets.
Elsewhere in India, the pandemic is far from over. Cases are increasing in remote rural areas with poor health infrastructure.
The state of Haryana, which borders Delhi and is home to the Gurugram industrial center, has extended its strict lockdown for at least another week. And in southern Indian states, where the daily caseload remains high, official orders to restart production have encountered opposition from workers.
“It’s a question of living and livelihood,” said M. Moorthy, general secretary of the workers’ union at Renault Nissan Auto Plant in Chennai.