An Indian couple wear masks during their wedding in Tonk, Rajasthan. State government guidelines say a total of 50 people can attend weddings. Photo: Himanshu Sharma/NurPhoto

New Delhi now is also the corona capital of India. The country has the third highest number of new cases of coronavirus after Brazil and the US. Commercial capital Mumbai, which was until now the worst affected city in India, has reported a slowing in the number of cases and days taken to double.

The number of cases in New Delhi reached 70,390, higher than Mumbai’s 69,528, causing disquiet amongst the administrators and agencies that govern the capital. Compared with Mumbai’s 32,000 people per square kilometer, the capital has much fewer at 20,000 in the same area.

To keep the number of cases in check, Delhi has ramped up testing to three times its usual rate. Delhi is conducting 19,000 tests per day, compared with about 5,000 in Mumbai. Delhi plans to go door-to- door to test all its citizens by July 6 and most of those living in the so-called containment areas by June 30.

The government is telling doctors nearing superannuation to continue fighting the Covid-19 battle for another six months. The federal government has staffed its Delhi offices with only half the number of employees to reduce crowds in public areas and improve its record of social distancing.

Delhi has added more than 3,000 cases in each of the past four days as the number nationally accelerated by 16,870 to 473,000. In terms of the total number of cases, India is fourth behind the US with 2.5 million cases, Brazil with 1.2 million and Russia 607,000.

The number of cases seems to be following a trend that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal predicted on June 10. Kejriwal forecast the number of cases could rise to 100,000, requiring 15,000 beds by the end of June and would surge to 225,000 by mid-July and 550,000 by the end of July.

The rapid rise in the number affected would require as many as 80,000 hospital beds by the end of July, he said. The state has taken over hotel rooms and public space to set up makeshift medical facilities for the emergency.

Delhi is administered by an elected government which reports to the Lt Governor, an appointee of the federal government. Some functions of the state, such as cleanliness, are under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, while law and order comes under the federal government’s Home Ministry. Decisions from different arms often end up at cross purposes.

A federal government order requiring minimum five-day institutional quarantine for a person with Covid-19 symptoms was rescinded after the state government protested that the system was already overburdened with shortages of ambulances, medical staff, beds and other resources.

Delhi was among the first states with a reasonable number of cases to begin relaxing the lockdown, permitting shops and offices to function as needed from May 18. Medical experts say the decision to suddenly relax restrictions may have increased the spread of the virus. Huge crowds outside liquor shops soon after the lockdown are often cited as social distancing failures.

Mumbai, in contrast, relaxed the lockdown gradually and has still not opened up places of worship, shopping malls, gym, swimming pools, theatres and any kind of gathering. Offices have been permitted to allow only 10% of the normal staff. Suburban trains have been started for only essential government and medical staff. The commercial capital still orders grocery shops to shut by 5pm.

Mumbai’s daily cases fell to 828 yesterday, the first time fewer than 1,000 in 40 days. The number of days required to double the number of cases has risen to 38 days compared with 23 days on June 14, 14.5 days in mid-May and nine days at the end of April.

Yet, there’s a twist in the tale. In the initial phase the main concern was areas of large concentration such as the Dharavi slum. The number of cases in most slums is now down to a trickle because of the strict lockdown, raising the level of public hygiene, ensuring streets are clean and public toilets are thoroughly sanitized every other hour.

In contrast, as restrictions get relaxed, it is some of the affluent neighborhoods that are reporting higher numbers of cases. An example is the plush south Mumbai’s Malabar Hill area, where one of the most expensive residential buildings reported 20 Covid-19 positive cases, prompting the authorities to severely restrict movements into and out of the building.

Tracking, identifying and isolating the primary contacts has been a key to Mumbai’s success. It plans to press into service mobile dispensaries to increase the number of tests.

To be sure, Maharashtra still remains the worst affected state, with 10 municipal areas contributing most of the cases. It will be tested when more staff are permitted to attend offices and they start using public transport. During normal times, each suburban train with capacity to move 1,200 commuters carries four times that number in peak hours. That will be the real test.

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