India's Maharashtra state nears 1 million coronavirus cases, rivalling Russia, stifling economic recovery

Maharashtra, if it were a country, would now rival Russia for the world's fourth-highest caseload.

MUMBAI (REUTERS) - India's biggest and richest state, Maharashtra, is set to record its millionth infection of the new coronavirus on Friday (Sept 11), putting it on a par with Russia in the pandemic and stifling India's attempts to turn around an economic plummet.

The western state, home to financial capital Mumbai, is on pace to blow past the one million mark, as infections have been rising some 20,000 a day recently.

Maharashtra, if it were a country, would now rival Russia for the world's fourth-highest caseload.

The spike in the state of 130 million people is the vanguard for India's breathtaking Covid-19 surge, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the national total. India is likely to hit five million cases in the coming days, behind only the United States.

With the virus surging unabated through Maharashtra's urban and rural areas, and state authorities struggling to curb Covid-19 deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hamstrung in trying to revive an economy that has shrivelled 23.9 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier.

"Maharashtra accounts for approximately 15 per cent of India's GDP. Unless Maharashtra gets back on its feet, India's chances for an economic recovery are bleak," said Mr Reuben Abraham, head of IDFC Institute, a policy think tank.

Yet Maharashtra's authorities are unable to ease many restrictions in the state. Public transport, malls and other businesses remain depressed even as the rest of India slowly gets back to business.

That is unlikely to change soon for a state that is home to several major industries, including its three most valuable companies: Tata Consultancy Services, Reliance Industries and HDFC Bank.

While cities around India have resumed commuter rail, Maharashtra has held off. In Mumbai - where packed trains define the work day - suburban train service has been halted since March for all but essential workers.

Resuming public transport in the city this month would lead to a second wave, which would be "difficult to manage", says a research paper submitted to Mumbai authorities this week.

Indeed, Maharashtra's partial reopening of factories in recent months, local festivals and lockdown fatigue help to explain the state's Covid-19 surge, local health officials told Reuters.

"People have tired after spending months at home and they're stepping out despite knowing they could get infected," said Dr Subhash Chavhan, a surgeon in Satara district. "They're no longer taking coronavirus seriously."

The state's initial reopening, starting in July, accelerated the spread to previously less-hit rural areas, said Dr Pradip Awate, Maharashtra's disease surveillance officer.

Tiny Rajewadi village did not have a single confirmed coronavirus case until mid-August. Recently, one in every four was testing positive for the virus.

Also contributing to Maharashtra's infections was the festival last month for the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh, a signature 11-day Mumbai celebration that sees huge numbers of people travelling to and from their hometowns.

"Before the Ganesh festival, there were on an average 60 new cases daily in the district. Now we're recording more than 150," said an official in the coastal district of Ratnagiri.

Covid-19 is also deadlier in Maharashtra, where it has killed 2.85 per cent of people with confirmed infections, well above the national mortality rate of 1.68 per cent. Maharashtra's death toll, over 28,000, accounts for 37 per cent of India's total.

Mr Rajesh Tope, Maharashtra's health minister, defended the higher caseload saying the state has been doing more tests than others and is being more transparent too.

"We've never tried hide cases just because they are rising," said Mr Tope, adding that Maharashtra has slashed the maximum private labs can charge for the more accurate RT-PCR testing to 1,200 rupees (S$22.30), barely a quarter of the national cap.

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