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

MUMBAI – India now has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world behind the US, Brazil, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom, and could be days away from hitting the fourth spot. In terms of new cases, it is now ranked third after the US and Brazil.

Some believe the world’s second-most populous country could be sleepwalking into a coronavirus disaster, given its 1.38 billion population, high population density in cities and creaky medical infrastructure.

The figures are worsening just as the country is beginning to ease restrictions after a 75-day lockdown.

Big cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, witnessed cars and motorcycles jamming main roads as the restrictions were lifted. Scores of commuters queued for the limited number of municipal buses, unable to maintain social distancing while managing to keep in place the mandatory face mask.

India is permitting 10% staff in private offices and 15% in government offices. Mumbai, the commercial capital, and its Maharashtra state have permitted a limited number of buses and taxis to ply with sufficient social distancing. They have let shops open only during the day to restrict crowds.

Maharashtra has kept religious places shut. Delhi has kept open religious places with restrictions such as social distancing, masks and sanitizers. Other states including Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand will be easing restrictions partly until June 30.

Maharashtra won’t allow hotels, restaurants, malls, theaters, bars, gymnasiums, barber shops and salons to open. The western state has more than 83,000 cases, or about a third of India’s 258,000 cases. As many as 3,000 people have died in Maharashtra, while 7,200 people have died across the country.

Analysts see it ironical for a country to ease lockdown as the number of cases crosses the five-figure mark. At about March 25, when the lockdown was enforced, the number of cases was fewer than a few hundred a day. It rose to about 3,500 a day in the first week of May, only to surge past 9,000 in June. That also explains the cautious and measured relaxation of restrictions.

Likewise, Brazil too started with a few hundred cases in April, before the graph began rising in early May to five figures and before surging to 30,000 in June. President Jair Bolsonaro, who described Covid-19 as “a little flu” and kept asking states to lift the lockdown to protect the economy, is being held responsible for Brazil’s misery.

The Latin American country has more than 692,000 reported cases and 37,300 deaths.

In India, the main factor behind the relaxation was loss of income and livelihood, disruption of supply chains, halting of plant and machinery that would take a few weeks to even get operational and the movement of workers who defied the lockdown rules and walked hundreds of kilometers back to their villages.

The economic outlook is grim. India’s central bank has predicted negative growth in the full year to March 2021. Global securities firms have forecasted that growth would shrink 5% in the full year. Former chief statistician of India Pronab Sen estimated more extremely that growth would shrink by more than 11.5%.

“The Covid-19 crisis brought the world to a stop. We paused to save lives but now we need to start again to save livelihoods,” Sajjan Jindal, chairman of the US $14 billion JSW Group was cited by Press Trust of India as saying. Jindal said the economic implications of the lockdown could be severe.

Daily earners or those with uncertain incomes form more than four-fifths of India’s workforce. A two-and-a-half month lockdown eroded the savings of most, leaving them desperate and vulnerable. The government has not helped with any cash relief.

Yet, experts say the new burst of economic activity is fraught with danger of an exponential rise in the number of cases that India is ill-equipped to handle.

Delhi, which initially expected to be self-sufficient, banned anyone from outside states from accessing medical facilities due to fears of scarcity. Likewise, desperation to contain the viral spread prompted state governments of Haryana and Delhi to close their borders. West Bengal extended its lockdown until June 30.

India has on average one hospital bed for every 2,000 people, according to the Brookings Institution think tank. Brookings expects a shortfall in beds, intensive care units and ventilators by the time India peaks in the number of cases. State governments have retained powers to curtail any easing in case the situation gets out of hand.