An airline ground worker at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad looks on as domestic flights resume after the government eased the lockdown. Photo: AFP

As domestic air travel resumed on Monday, India recorded 7,000 Covid-19 cases, its biggest single-day increase. It is now one of the world’s 10 worst-hit countries.

As many as 16,000 new cases have emerged over the past three days, putting the government’s policy response in the spotlight.

“Right policies at the wrong time,’’ said a stockbroker who declined to be identified. “India jumped the gun in March and locked up unsuspecting citizens with three and a half hours’ notice, and now it is left with no choice but to permit people to resume gainful employment before starvation consumes them.’’ 

The resumption of domestic air travel was marred by confusion, unscheduled cancellations, stranded passengers, an absence of public ground transport, and social distancing non-compliance at airports. 

India was among the first countries to begin testing all incoming international passengers for Covid-19 and imposed a total lockdown from March 25. The lockdown was intended to prevent the spread of the virus and give authorities enough time to prepare for any surge in the number of infections. 

The strategy worked initially – there were just 601 cases on April 1. However, the number had increased to 2,394 by May 1, surging to 7,113 by May 24.

India has had 140,000 cases and 4,040 deaths. 

Draconian enforcement of social distancing in some places, sanitizing public spaces, banning the handshake, and suspending public transport have probably had some mitigating impact.

Making use of face masks compulsory in every public place and taking quick action to isolate reported patients have also helped contain the spread.

India also increased testing from about 1,000 a day in March to 100,000 in May. However, in terms of tests per million, India remains at a fraction of those in Spain, the US, Germany and France. 

The lengthy lockdown has depleted the savings of most families, and many people trapped in large towns were forced to defy strict rules and walk or hitchhike to their home villages, often hundreds of kilometers away. 

States in the northeast were not hit hard by the virus, but Maharashtra and Gujarat on the western coast took a heavy toll. The government in Bangalore banned visitors from neighboring Maharashtra because it believed they were spreading the virus. The southern state of Kerala has been lauded for its containment of the virus. 

After the lockdown was extended for a fourth time on May 18, the government had no choice but to ease restrictions, permitting states to make decisions based on local conditions. 

Efforts by the central government to restart domestic flights was resisted by many states, including Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Mumbai has restricted flights to 50 instead of 200 a day. The state government requires those landing at Bangalore to be quarantined. 

Air passengers have been blamed for the initial spread of the virus. Mumbai and the National Capital Region of Delhi account for most urban cases. Common to both cities are a large number of overseas travelers, high population density, and the fact that many people live in hutments. 

Maharashtra leads with 50,231 cases, followed by Tamil Nadu 16,277, Gujarat 14,056 and Delhi 13,418.  Yet, Delhi state decided to take the plunge and relax most restrictions for city travel and shopping, and permitted more staff to return to offices. 

Besides Mumbai and Delhi, Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai and Gujarat state capital Ahmedabad attract large numbers of overseas passengers. About 70% of Ahmedabad’s 7.6 million people could be carrying the virus, the top law officer in Gujarat state is reported by newspapers to have said at a court hearing yesterday. 

The saving grace for the country remains a steady rise in the recovery rate and decline in the death rate. The peak death rate of 30.93% has steadily declined to 6.5% as of May 24, according to data posted on Worldometers website. 

The fourth lockdown is scheduled to end on May 31.