The Indian government on Thursday claimed initial success in its fight against the coronavirus epidemic, saying it would have been hit with 820,000 cases by next week had it not imposed a nationwide lockdown.
The number of people infected with the virus stood at 5,865 including 169 dead, far smaller than other countries such as the United States, Italy and Spain.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to order 1.3 billion Indians indoors for three weeks in the world’s biggest lockdown has helped slow the infection rate, foreign ministry additional secretary Vikas Swarup said, even though it has exacted a heavy toll on the economy and on the hundreds of millions of poor.
By the middle of April, the caseload would have touched 820,000, he said, citing an internal assessment of the Indian Council of Medical Research, far more than the country’s underfunded and decrepit public health system could handle.
“We would have gone the Italian way, had we not done the lockdown,” Swarup told reporters.
India, he said began screening people coming from overseas a fortnight before the first positive case surfaced on Jan.30 while Italy started 25 days after its first case.
Swarup said the outbreak was concentrated in about 75 of India’s more than 600 districts, which would help the government manage the crisis better.
Modi is due to take a decision in the next two days over whether to extend the lockdown that is due to end on next Tuesday. Millions of people have lost their jobs, largely those who work on daily wages and have fled to their homes in the countryside.
Several states have called for an extension saying they would not be able to deal with a surge of cases. The eastern state of Odisha announced on Thursday it would remain shut until the end of April, regardless of the federal government’s decision.
“The state cabinet which met today decided that saving the lives of our people is the top most priority at this juncture. Accordingly, we have decided to extend the lockdown till April 30th,” Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said.
RAMPING UP MEDICAL FACILITIES
The federal government also said it had formally approved an allocation of ($1.97 billion) as part of its COVID-19 emergency response and health system preparedness package.
“This will allow for rapidly ramping up the number of corona testing facilities, personal protective equipment (PPE), isolation beds, ICU beds, ventilators and other essential equipment,” a government statement quoted Modi as saying.
According to the government, India has about one doctor per 1,500 citizens. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends one doctor per 1,000. In rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live and rely almost solely on government hospitals, the ratio is one doctor to more than 10,000 people.
India also has 2.3 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. By contrast, China has 3.6 and the United States has nearly 35 per 100,000 people.
But foreign ministry official Swarup said the shutdown had given an opportunity to the government to ramp up facilities through innovative measures such as using coaches of the giant railway network as isolation wards.
India now has 520 dedicated COVID-19 hospitals with nearly 85,000 isolation beds and 8,500 ICU beds, he said. The government has prepared 5,570 additional health facilities, which will bring in another 197,400 isolation beds and a further 36,700 ICU beds.
The railways have turned 2,500 railway carriages into 40,000 isolation beds, he said.