BANGALORE - India is pushing ahead with reopening its economy, even as its Covid-19 cases are set to overtake the United States with the largest number of cases.
The country will allow cinema halls to open this week, while the reopening of schools is being widely debated.
India has nearly 7.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases, but faced with a battered economy and widespread job losses, the government is continuing to loosen restrictions.
Schools can finally reopen after being closed for eight months. On Sept 30, the Home Ministry released new guidelines that said that all schools could be gradually opened after Oct 15. But student attendance would not be mandatory and online learning would be preferred.
Last week, India's Education Ministry issued a 54-page-long standard operating procedure for schools, which included directions for physical distancing, sanitising protocols, staggered schedules and shorter class periods.
However, state governments have the final say in deciding if and how schools can reopen.
While Punjab and Uttar Pradesh have allowed certain schools to open from October, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi are waiting till the end of the month to decide. Other states like Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal are likely to take a decision only after the festival of Diwali in mid-November.
In an online survey conducted last month by LocalCircles, a citizen engagement organisation, over 70 per cent of parents said they would not send their children to school.
Karnataka has even ceased operating its online teaching centres for poor school children who do not otherwise have access to TV or mobile phones, over fears of infection.
A World Bank report published earlier this week said that besides serious learning losses, the prolonged closure of schools in India could cost the country over US$400 billion (S$543 billion) in future earnings. Child rights activists have already sounded the alarm about poor children slipping back into labour and underage marriages.
Covid-related mortality among those under 17 years of age is only 0.05 per cent. However, a large study of Covid-19 transmission patterns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu published last month in Science suggests that children could be silent spreaders of the coronavirus, as they do not show any symptoms. The study found that children of all ages can contract Covid-19 and infect others.
Even as the school debate rages, cinema theatres are set to open with little discussion.
Last week, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry released guidelines on how cinema halls and multiplexes could reopen and operate. Auditoriums can only fill half their seats and will have to stagger show timings to prevent crowding.
Most north and central Indian states have already announced that they will allow theatres to open on Oct 15. But Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Odisha have said theatres cannot open till the end of the month.
The clearance of cinemas to reopen has left public health experts bewildered.
"After eight months, we should be able to say what proportion of transmission comes from what activities. But most decisions are based on the gut instinct of key administrators, not principles evolved from databases or research," said Dr T. Sundararaman, the global coordinator for the People's Health Movement.
"Cities are closing beaches and airy parks and keeping schools shut, but allowing enclosed spaces like gyms and theatres to open. A couple of 'super spreaders' inside a closed hall with low circulation is extremely dangerous," he added.
The number of daily confirmed coronavirus cases in India has fallen in recent weeks, from around 93,000 in early September to about 55,000 on Monday.
Epidemiologists believe this may be due to the widespread use of rapid antigen tests, which make up about half of India's total tests and are not as reliable as costlier PCR tests.
Nearly 110,000 people in India have died from Covid-19. The country's death rate of 1.53 per cent is among the lowest of the world's worst-affected countries. Some analysts attribute the relatively low number to the country's young population and immunity from other endemic viral diseases like dengue.
But investigations have also revealed that deaths from the coronavirus are being under-reported or attributed to other causes. Bangalore-based community medicine expert Hemant Shewade told AFP that the "poor death surveillance system misses many deaths", and only one in five deaths are recorded with a cause.
As India's festival season will soon kick into top gear with Dussehra and Diwali, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan warned citizens to be careful: "There is no need to congregate in large numbers to prove your faith or your religion. If we do this we may be heading for big trouble."