NEW DELHI - India recorded a new high of 83,883 coronavirus cases over 24 hours on Wednesday (Sept 2), just as the government started preparing to open metro services as part of its effort to ease lockdown restrictions.
The new caseload represents the highest single-day increase since the coronavirus was first detected in the country in January.
India is the world's second most populous country, with 1.35 billion people, and the third most affected by Covid-19, with 3.85 million cases.
Health experts noted a worrying upward trend even though testing had also increased.
Testing increased from 10 a day on Jan 30 to an average of 1.1 million, the Health Ministry said, adding that 1.17 million were tested on Wednesday.
"It (the numbers) mean two things. One is that the virus is indeed spreading to more places and affecting more people," said Professor K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India and a member of the Indian Council of Medical Research's Covid-19 task force.
"It also means increased testing is detecting people with the virus. The combination of the two factors has led to the increase in numbers."
He noted that the large increase was coming from cities other than the metro cities, with the exception of Delhi, smaller towns and villages.
"Delhi is like a yo-yo. It showed some initial benefits between June to July. But in August it slipped up and the authorities are beginning to scramble again," said Dr Reddy.
The capital Delhi had seen a decline in cases over the past month, leading the government to say the city had turned a corner.
But cases shot up to 2,000 over the weekend after daily increases of around 1,000 for 50 days.
Delhi recorded 2,509 news cases on Wednesday but the city government has ruled out a second wave.
"We could have called it a second wave if there were no positive cases for one or two months and then cases would have started coming again. The virus is still there in Delhi," Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain told reporters.
India implemented a complete lockdown on March 25, which halted all economic activity. At its strictest level in March and April, people were allowed to leave their homes only to buy essential items.
Restrictions have eased since in phases, with the latest move to resume metro services in what is being called Unlock 4. Education institutes still remain closed.
The easing of restrictions comes as worries have grown about the health of the economy, adversely hit by the stringent lockdown in the early days. Growth in the three months to June 30 contracted by 23.9 per cent.
Metro services are due to resume in a graded manner from Sept 7 after a five-month hiatus.
The government said people with a fever will not be allowed to travel, masks are mandatory at all times and trains will not stop at stations where people were not practising social distancing.
Federal Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri warned that action would be taken against offenders, including possibly naming and shaming.
"If an individual's misbehaviour results in jeopardising a public utility which is so vital in the life of a city or a country, obviously there is little tolerance for such behaviour," said Mr Puri on Wednesday.
There is widespread consensus that a new lockdown may not be the solution, given the economic costs.
But experts said that with numbers going up, the loosening of restrictions would be a challenge in the fight against Covid 19. Contact tracing and testing are seen to be key apart from enforcing social distancing and mask use, said experts.
"Now, Unlock 4 is the real test. It's at a point of time when a whole lot of fatigue has set in with preventive practices (like social distancing) at individual or group level," said Dr Rajib Dasgupta, chairman of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He said that it seemed in the beginning of August that India was going to stabilise but instead the numbers appeared to be rising with the trend of growth in rural areas.
"Several states which are predominantly rural like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are on the rise.
"Some of these are also states with low testing. Plus even earlier hot spots like Delhi are also witnessing another surge. We are sort of at the crossroads."