All quiet around the normally bustling Taj Hotel on Mumbai's waterfront. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The lockdown in India’s commercial capital Mumbai may be extended after the May 31 deadline as the number of people infected with the coronavirus keeps rising.

The city and its sprawling suburbs, which accounts for more than 40% of India’s revenue, on Thursday had another 1,438 people test positive, bringing its total number of cases to 43,705.

Mumbai is now behind Sao Paulo in Brazil and Moscow in the number of daily positive tests. Sao Paulo had 54,948 positive tests by May 27 and Moscow 173,491 by May 28. 

Mumbai accounts for 26% of all cases in India, resulting in over-stretched hospitals and medical facilities. The government has asked for reinforcements of doctors and paramedical staff from southern Kerala state. 

The city was also pushing for an early resumption of suburban trains to ferry more staff to hospitals.

At hospitals meant only for Covid-19 patients, of the 6,099 beds reserved for severe virus cases, 96% were occupied with virus patients, while 1,437 beds meant for moderate cases were 80% occupied people with the coronavirus, according to municipality data. 

A total of 99% of the 645 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds were full, although only 72% of the 373 ventilators were in use by people with Covid-19.

In the city of 18 million, there is limited scope for social distancing. Almost half the population lives in slums where residents have no choice but to share common toilets with scores of others, often cooking in unhygienic conditions, sometimes in the open, and lacking running water inside cramped shanties. 

Yet, the city has been the dream destination for many Indians from the countryside as it offers opportunities in the world’s most vibrant movie-making industry, financial services, capital markets and commodities, diamond and jewelry making, other manufacturing and services industry. 

The dominant role of the city in India’s economy has been seen as a potential drawback for the country because of the high number of Covid-19 cases there. 

Lockdown restrictions have stopped work at movie studios, diamond and jewelry makers, reduced capital market operations to less than half, truncated bond trading to a quarter of the usual level and severely restricted most other manufacturing and services industries. 

India’s Sao Paulo

Public transport, which on average carries 8 million people every day, remains shut. Calls from industrialists, traders and individuals to relax the restrictions and lockdown have been growing.

The high number of coronavirus cases in some parts of the city have caused major concerns, prompting some to claim that Mumbai could go the same way as Brazil.

Brazil has become the second worst affected country with 415,000 cases after the United States, which has had 1.75 million cases.

A key reason for the number of cases shooting up in Brazil, particularly in the city of Sao Paulo, was the initial self-denial of the danger the virus posed. The enforcement of hygiene measures and social distancing in Mumbai, on the other hand, has been almost draconian since March 25.

As of May 27, Sao Paulo reported 129 new deaths and 3,096 new confirmed cases, accounting for 15% of all new cases in Brazil. The city has a total of 54,948 cases, according to a CNN report.

ICU beds in Sao Paulo are at 92% occupancy, and more such beds were being added, the mayor told CNN. The Moscow region had a total of 173,497 cases, with 2,254 deaths and 99,992 recoveries as of May 28, according to statista.com. 

In Mumbai, there have been clusters of the virus. Most of these areas are in central Mumbai, which also houses Dharavi, the biggest slum in the continent. Close to one million people live in Dharavi, which has a population density of 300,000 per square kilometer, although estimates vary.

Facing acute shortages of medical facilities including ambulances and beds, plus the exorbitant charges levied by private hospitals, the state government on May 22 acquired 80%, or 4,400, beds at private hospitals which were to be given to patients at government-mandated lower charges. Yet officials remain optimistic. 

The city could see the number of cases peak by June 10, municipal commissioner Iqbal Chahal said on India Today TV on Wednesday. This is about the same time when annual monsoon rains hit western India.

Anticipating the number of infections to increase when the rains come, the state government has set up makeshift temporary medical facilities with a total of 4,000 beds at seven locations across the city. The makeshift hospitals are erected in public parks, sports stadiums, the business district, exhibition center and other locations.

The death rate from Covid-19 cases in India of 2.87% of the number of case is lower than the global average of 6.15%, data shows. Yet that is no solace since the virus is spreading across the countryside as more migrant workers leave large cities for their villages.

An estimated nine million workers left various cities over the past one and half months. India could be in the stage of community transmission. 

While the country can’t take chances and let its guard down, it faces pressure to relax restrictions and lockdowns and permit more able bodied people to work. The country-wide lockdown was due for a review by May 31, but it is expected that state governments may be given more flexibility in deciding which areas should ease restrictions.

Across India, more than 70% of cases come from locations in 13 cities, say government sources. The lockdown review could focus on limiting restrictions on severely affected areas and easing rules in other areas. 

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