India passes eight million coronavirus cases

By: AFP      Published: 06:47 PM, 29 Oct, 2020
India passes eight million coronavirus cases
People enrol their names and wait for their turn as a health worker conducts swab test on a man at a mobile Covid-19 coronavirus testing clinic at a bus stand in Bangalore.

India passed eight million coronavirus cases on Thursday, with the world's second-worst-hit country bracing for a new wave of the pandemic.

There have also been more than 120,000 deaths across the country of 1.3 billion people, according to the latest government figures.

Only the United States has seen more infections, with 9.1 million confirmed cases and  nearly 230,000 deaths.

India has one of the world's lowest death rates and the government has highlighted the slowing number of new infections in recent weeks. 

But authorities are preparing for a new surge after Diwali, the country's most important religious festival on November 14. Textiles Minister Smriti Irani has become the latest of several cabinet members to test positive.

"All states need to be careful during the coming festive season. This caution must be exercised for the next three months at least," Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said in a recent statement.

A stringent lockdown imposed in March has gradually been eased as the government seeks to reboot the economy after the loss of millions of jobs nationwide. But experts say this has helped spread the disease.

New Delhi recorded 5,000 new cases on Wednesday, its highest daily figure since the outbreak of the pandemic. Officials have warned that the capital could see more than 10,000 cases a day in the next wave.

Festive season 

Experts have said crowds gathering for Diwali and other festivals, colder temperatures and the annual winter pollution crisis could worsen the impact of coronavirus cases in Delhi.

Authorities are also worried about the southern state of Kerala and West Bengal in the east which have seen worrying spikes in cases. 

Financial capital Mumbai, India's worst-hit city, is adding about 2,000 cases a day.

Suresh Kumar Rathi, an epidemiologist from health charity Public Health Foundation of India, told AFP that if India took "proper precautions" now it could beat a new wave of infections but indiscipline would lead to a "disastrous" unravelling of recent gains.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also warned the public in recent speeches that they were being "careless" in giving up social distancing and other precautions.

"The virus is still out there. It thrives on our complacency," Modi said in a Thursday interview with the Economic Times.

While businesses and theatres have slowly started to reopen, schools and colleges remain shut in most cities and international flights are severely limited.

India currently only has air links with a small number of countries including the United States, France, Germany and Britain.

India's domestic air market was the world's fastest growing before the pandemic but is currently operating at less than 60 percent of last year's capacity.

Home remedies boom as India pandemic cases soar

New Delhi housewife Sashi scoops Covid-19 "immunity-boosting" powder into a jug of water every morning for her family, joining a growing number of Indians who believe traditional supplements will help ward off the pandemic.

As India passes eight million cases -- second in the world behind the United States -- and the death toll exceeds 120,000, people are increasingly turning to ancient Hindu "ayurvedic" medicine.

And modern Indian consumer companies are cashing in on growing demand for alternative approaches, turning homemade therapies into packaged products such as turmeric milk and holy basil drops.

Sashi, 50, saw adverts on television for a herbal drink made by ayurveda and yoga tycoon Baba Ramdev "that can keep my family safe from the coronavirus".

"I thought that since it's been on TV, it must be good," she said.

The pandemic has increased nervousness about the fragile state of India's healthcare system. 

Experts believe that, because of under-testing and under-reporting, the number of cases and deaths is much higher that officially reported.

There is no scientific evidence that ayurvedic treatments can prevent the coronavirus.

But the sector had already been massive before the pandemic, with people believing claims that natural remedies can cure everything from cancer to the common cold.

It is now worth $10 billion a year, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Ayurveda practitioner Bhaswati Bhattacharya said the lack of a coronavirus vaccine and other conventional treatments has driven the rush towards familiar natural remedies.

"Ayurveda has been written for 5,000 years and been around probably for twice that at least. It's lived through plagues, smallpox and pandemics, so people are saying, 'Let's see if it works'," she told AFP.

No magic pill?

The rising interest in ayurveda -- the "science of life" in Sanskrit -- and other therapies has also been encouraged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party, which set up a dedicated ministry in 2014.

In January, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homeopathy) touted traditional remedies as a means to combat the coronavirus.

More recently, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan released guidelines for treating some asymptomatic and mild Covid-19 sufferers with ayurveda and yoga.

At chemist shops, ayurveda products are displayed as prominently as pharmaceutical drugs.

Mother Dairy, a leading milk producer, said there has been a "phenomenal" consumer response to its recently launched turmeric milk for children.

"The demand is very, very high so we are ramping up the production and distribution," Mother Dairy's products chief Sanjay Sharma told AFP.

"Health and immunity-led products are a new phenomena. This is an opportunity... to provide precautionary healthcare for consumers at a very affordable price."

Philipe Haydon, former chief executive of Himalaya Drug Company -- a major producer of herbal pills and creams -- said demand for wellness and immunity products was up to 10 times higher than before the pandemic.

But the hungry for alternative treatments has also fuelled controversial and pseudoscientific claims to have found Covid-19 "cures".

Although there is no scientific evidence, several politicians from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party have advocated using cow dung and urine to cure the virus.

And in June, the AYUSH ministry ordered yoga guru Ramdev, who has turned his Patanjali company into one of India's best-known brands, to stop marketing his "Coronil" herbal remedy as a cure.

The Indian Medical Association has also called on the health minister, himself a doctor, to provide evidence that ayurveda and yoga are effective in treating the virus.

"None of them provide any specific protection against Covid-19," Anand Krishnan, a community medicine professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, told AFP.

"It is more important for people to follow the measures of social distancing, masking and hand-washing."