With nearly 700,000 coronavirus cases, India is third worst-hit country

India is now the world's third worst-affected country. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - India's coronavirus epidemic became the third biggest in the world as infections surged after the nation eased containment measures to reverse an economic collapse that has left millions destitute.

The Asian nation reported an increase of 24,248 cases, bringing the total to 697,413 cases to overtake Russia, according to data collated by Johns Hopkins University.

India is now trailing only the US and Brazil, and is on track to surpass the 800,000 cases forecast for this month by a team of data scientists at the University of Michigan.

The country has failed to suppress new cases despite implementing one of the world's most-expansive lockdowns at the end of March, when there were fewer than 1,000 cases.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to ease the curbs in June to rescue an economy that's hurtling toward its first contraction in more than four decades.

India has become one of the worst hit countries as the global epicentre of the coronavirus is continuing to shift. The outbreak emerged in China, spread to Europe, and now developing countries with weaker health-care systems such as Brazil and India are reeling.

Since late March, the US has had the most cases globally and is still adding infections at a record daily pace.

A spokesman from India's health ministry did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.

"India is the second most populous country in the world so it's not surprising," said Abdul Ghafur, an infectious diseases specialist in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

"European countries have small populations so they can lockdown, stop the disease and then open up. In
India even under lockdown it continues to spread."

The epidemic has left India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, under pressure with chronically understaffed and underfunded health-care infrastructure.

India ranked 154 out of 195 countries in global health-care access and quality even before the coronavirus struck.

After overwhelming the capital New Delhi and financial centre Mumbai, the coronavirus is now moving through the country's vast hinterland. Millions of migrant worker who lost their city-based daily-wage jobs in the lockdown have now returned to their native villages.

This has created new routes of transmission for the virus to rural areas where medical facilities are even more rickety.

While India's confirmed cases are skyrocketing, reaching more than 20,000 cases a day, the rise in death toll hasn't been as dramatic, although there are concerns that deaths are being under-reported.

India's officially reported case-fatality ratio is lower than that in countries such as Japan and Germany, and its younger population - who are less likely to fall seriously ill from infection - may be a contributing factor.

Ghafur said that India must try to identify sick people early and build out hospital capacity.

"I'm worried about the fatality rate" and keeping that low needs to be the strategy, he said.

Meanwhile, early indicators suggest that economic gains from the initial easing of the lockdown measures - allowing all shops to open and domestic air travel to resume - are beginning to dissipate, according a July 1 report from Bloomberg economist Abhishek Gupta.

The International Monetary Fund predicts India's economy will contract by 4.5 per cent this year.

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