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India's Chennai to reimpose lockdown as coronavirus cases surge

AFP and Reuters/New Delhi
Filed on June 15, 2020
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A health worker sprays disinfectant inside government offices in Chennai on June 13, 2020

Workers sit on a platform next to parked passenger trains that will be equipped for the care of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients amidst the spread of the disease, in New Delhi, India, June 15, 2020.

Meanwhile, criticism mounts as New Delhi hospital beds run out amid Covid-19 crisis.

A lockdown will be reimposed Friday on some 15 million people in the Indian city of Chennai and several neighbouring districts, state officials said, as coronavirus cases surge in the region.

Home to 1.3 billion people, India has been gradually lifting a nationwide lockdown in a bid to get the economy back on track.

But new infections have still been rising across the country -- particularly in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu.

"Full Lockdown from 19th for Chennai, Thiruvallur, Chengalpet & Kanchipuram districts," the Tamil Nadu state government tweeted Monday.

It will be in place until the end of June.

The southern state has recorded just over 44,000 cases out of a nationwide total of 332,424, according to official figures. 

A majority of the cases are in Chennai, according to media reports, the headquarters of India's huge automotive industry.

Only shops selling essential items and restaurants will be allowed to remain open from early morning until 2:00 pm local time during the lockdown.

The lockdown will be tightened further on Sundays.

The state government also ordered an audit of the number of coronavirus deaths after media reports said at least 200 fatalities were not reflected in the official toll of 435.

- Rising infections -

India now has the world's fourth-highest number of infections after the United States, Brazil and Russia, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The South Asian nation has been reporting around 10,000 new cases a day recently.

In major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, reports of patients struggling to find hospital beds have triggered speculation about fresh lockdowns being re-introduced there.

- Delhi running out of hospital beds -

In Delhi, mortuaries are overflowing with bodies, and cemetery and crematorium staff say they cannot keep up with the backlog of corpses.

Some families of people infected with Covid-19 have complained about having to hunt for beds for their relatives after hospitals turned them away.

Others said patients had been left unattended in corridors of government-run hospitals, while local media reports of dead bodies in a hospital lobby prompted the Supreme Court to order the state administration to get its act together.

"I don't think we expected that cases would rise this much," said a lawmaker of the Aam Aadmi party that runs the capital, who asked not to be named. "We were so over-confident."

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, however, insisted Monday there were no plans for a new lockdown.

Less than a month ago, Kejriwal said the city's hospitals were well equipped to fight the virus as the lockdown had given authorities enough time to prepare. "Delhi will win, corona will lose," he said.

While Delhi had around 10,000 novel coronavirus cases at that time, the number had jumped to 41,000 on Monday. India's total numbers stood at 332,424, with Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai fuelling the rise in infections.

Cases in the capital are set to surge. The government estimates it will have 550,000 Covid-19 cases by the end of July, around 13 times current numbers, and will require 150,000 beds by then.

On Monday a government mobile app showed that of Delhi's 9,940 Covid-19 beds, almost 5,500 were occupied. Of the 108 private and public hospitals listed in the app, 25 had no beds available.

- 'Deplorable state of affairs -

Anant Bhan, an independent researcher of global health and bioethics, said opening temples and mosques was likely to make more people leave their homes and put lives at risk if proper social distancing protocols were not followed.

The reopenings were decided nationally, but the state of Maharashtra where Mumbai is located, for example, kept restrictions in place to contain the outbreak.

"They (Delhi authorities) probably under-estimated the possibility of a rise of infection and its spread, or the models they used then did not seem to indicate the spread they are seeing now," said Bhan.

Following harsh words from the Supreme Court, India's federal government said it would provide 500 railway coaches to be converted into Covid-19 care centres for the capital.

"There should be infrastructure, there need to be beds, patients are not being looked after, this is a deplorable state of affairs," said Justice M.R. Shah.

The Delhi government has also been criticised for its contact tracing.

The CEO of India's NITI Aayog federal think-tank said on Twitter that Delhi was tracing just two people for every Covid-19 positive case, compared with Bengaluru city in the south that was tracking 47 contacts for each patient.

Poor resources are part of the problem.

In a small government office atop a dispensary in the East Delhi district, home to 1.7 million of the capital's 20 million people, only around 10 staff were coordinating tracing contacts when a Reuters reporter visited on Monday afternoon.

As information about 200 new coronavirus cases trickled in, an official complained that the contact tracing teams were already stretched.

"How will we deal with it when there are 400 cases?" the official said. "We will need help."

The metropolis has more than 41,000 infections and 1,300 deaths, making it the third-worst hit state or territory in the country.

The Supreme Court said last week that conditions in the national capital were "horrendous, horrific and pathetic".

India's economy -- Asia's third-biggest and already stuttering before the epidemic -- has been badly hit by the lockdown.

The government has sought to revive growth by allowing most economic activities to resume, including restarting a limited number of domestic flights and interstate trains and buses.

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