Rajewadi / Guwahati:
The picturesque sugar cane village of Rajewadi in western India did not have a single confirmed coronavirus case until mid-August. Now one in four people there is positive for the virus, and the police blame a local religious event for the spread.
Such flare-ups in cases in small towns and villages, where mask wearing and social distancing have all but disappeared and community gatherings are resuming, explain why India’s infections are now increasing faster than anywhere else in the world, and why the country will soon be among the top 4 comes million cases.
According to current trends, India will overtake Brazil as the second worst hit nation after the US in a few days.
India reported 83,883 new infections on Thursday, beating its previous world record for the highest increase in one day. Cases are increasing in the cities, villages and smaller towns, while the situation in the large metropolis of New Delhi and Mumbai has stabilized.
The World Health Organization said India’s relatively low death rate could rise if the virus spreads into the vast countryside, where health facilities are simple at best.
In Rajewadi – a small village of around 360 residents in the hardest-hit Indian state of Maharashtra – authorities only started extensive testing after it was discovered that an elderly resident died of COVID-19 on August 17, Aniruddha Athalye said, a senior health officer in Satara district where the village is located.
Since then, 91 people have tested positive there and the village has been cordoned off by the police.
Government officials, police and local residents said days before the death – the village’s only death from the disease – the person and about 30 others gathered one night to offer prayers to a local deity. After the rituals, they had dinner together, and no one wore masks or practiced social distancing during the entire event.
Police said almost all of the participants tested positive. Police have filed a complaint against the organizer for violating the state’s epidemic.
One person who saw the feature but was not present said, “Everyone acted like coronavirus wasn’t catching them.” He declined to be named while police are investigating the case.
The village is now barricaded with bamboo and wood. A poster describes it as a safety zone.
Sanjay Bhosale, a village grocer whose son contracted the virus, said residents were fed up with the rules of the virus and started visiting each other as before.
“It created a perception that coronavirus was just hype that it is not that serious,” said Bhosale.
“We were back to normal life. Only after the person died did people take it seriously again, but by then the virus had spread throughout the village. Now we are taking precautionary measures.”
This trend has been felt across India, where 60% of the 1.35 billion people live.
With more cases reported due to higher tests, some states like Assam in the northeast have asked police to tighten enforcement of social distancing and other restrictions. The largely rural Assam has reported one of the highest numbers of infections in India.
In Satara, total cases doubled between August 6 and 23, the period when India added 1 million new infections – the world‘s fastest such jump.
Officials warn that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
“In April and May, people followed all the rules, but now the mentality has changed. They have become casual and take the coronavirus lightly,” said Satara’s civil surgeon Subhash Chavan.
Satara is now doing more than 2,000 tests a day, about 200 weeks ago. Nationally, India’s tests have more than doubled to over 1 million a day in a month. That’s about 32 tests per 1,000 people, higher than many developing countries but much lower than the US rate of 253 per 1,000.
Officials say because India’s rural health infrastructure is poor, the focus is on testing so patients can be isolated at home earlier and reserving scarce hospital beds for the most critical. The authorities and private hospitals are already running out of beds in rural Maharashtra, the authorities say.
Still, only 1.76% of confirmed patients have died in India, compared to the global death rate of 3.3%.
India is facing the worst economic downturn in its history and is trying to ease lockdown restrictions despite the surge in infections. India will resume urban metro trains, bringing up to 100 people together for religious, political and other events from the end of this month.
“We have to consider the economic aspect in dealing with the pandemic,” said Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s Minister of Health and Finance. “Rather than locking often, we need to try to maintain social distance and use masks to contain the virus.”