Commuters wearing facemasks as a preventative measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus wait for public bus along a street in New Delhi on October 5, 2020. Photo: AFP

India has recorded the lowest Covid-19 daily case count in six weeks and is seeing a steady deceleration in its total number of cases and an improving recovery rate. However, experts say the country could still surpass the United States, the world’s worst-affected country, unless it pushes the brake pedal hard to control the pandemic.

With 6.7 million cases, India is just behind the US, which has 7.7 million, and Brazil is struggling to keep its case count under five million. India, which was clocking more than double the US’s number of daily cases, has brought it down below 60,000 from more than 90,000, compared with over 40,000 in the US.

India has seen a downward trend in the number of new cases over the past 14 days, Rajesh Bhushan, the country’s healthy secretary, said in New Delhi on Tuesday.

The optimism he exuded is justified.

At 5.66 million, India has the highest number of recovered patients, ahead of 4.9 million in the US and 4.3 million in Brazil. The three countries account for 54% of all global cases. The positive news for India is that the number of recoveries is regularly outnumbering new cases.

After struggling initially with testing, India today stands next to the US, having conducted 80 million tests and more than 1.1 million daily tests to identify infection spreaders.

With increased and widespread testing the average positivity rate has declined to 6.8% in the week ended October 6, compared with a recent high of 9.2% in the week ended September 22.

India’s fatality rate of 1.55% is the lowest among the 20 worst-affected countries, according to John Hopkins University. Mexico and the UK have the highest mortality rates: 10.4% and 8.8%, respectively.

Experts skeptical

While there are many positive indicators, some experts remain skeptical of India’s capacity to vanquish the pandemic anytime soon. A key factor that could undermine its containment campaign is the relaxation of lockdown restrictions.

The initial two-month lockdown was draconian in its brutality and resulted in mass unemployment and people being forced to spend their savings. People’s desperation to rush out and seek employment despite the risks could lead to a rise in the number of cases, according to skeptics.

“People are tiring of adhering to social distancing and, practically speaking, it is very difficult to do this in certain highly populated cities in India,’’ said Dr Manisha Juthani, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale School of Medicine.

“More cases are inevitable, but by following the measures that we know work such as wearing masks, ensuring distancing and hand hygiene, we can slow the number of new cases,’’ she said.

India’s economy contracted by almost 24% in the quarter ended June 30, the most among the world’s major economies. Even now in the business capital Mumbai, the mass transport systems, critical for the full resumption of economic activities, are still shut for the common person. Few envy the dilemma that administrators currently face.

Also, with Diwali and other Hindu festivals round the corner, keeping people at home and ensuring that annual purchases of clothes and household items are done with minimum crowding will be a herculean task.

“Given the current rate of Covid infections, it would not be surprising if India surpasses the US in a month, certainly by the end of 2020,’’ said Juthani. “In the US, we are entering the winter season so it is very likely that we will have an increase in cases. We aren’t entering that season with the pandemic under ideal control so it may take until the end of 2020 for India to surpass the US since the US may increase the rate of infections as well.’’

Yet even in this there is a silver lining.

Of the total cases in India, half have been recorded in just 25 of India’s 718 districts. Fifteen of the 25 districts are in just one state, Maharashtra, belying concerns of a wide spread of the virus across the country.

Of all the 925,000 active cases, 77% have been recorded in just 10 states. Of these, half of are in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. Such pockets of widespread infection could be addressed with more testing and quarantining.

A key game changer could be the vaccine. Most experts don’t expect a significant inoculation effort to begin before April next year.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Sunday that India would be ready to vaccinate up to 250 million people by July 2021.

The World Health Organisation’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, estimates that as much as 70% of the world’s population will be vaccinated by 2022.