India Insight: Riding a dystopian Covid-19 wave

A patient suffering from COVID-19 receives treatment inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi, India, April 29, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

MUMBAI, May 3 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A day’s hike away from phone connectivity, news filtered up the snowclad Himalayas from one tea-shack to the next of India’s explosive second wave of Covid-19. It was a harsh jolt back to reality after a week of blissful trekking. Like far too many in India, for the past six months I felt comfortable flying around the country. Everything has turned on its head. The only safe space now, it seems, is my Mumbai home.

I returned to the city to find the coronavirus rampant in high-rise buildings whose richer residents were mostly spared in the first wave. Friends and acquaintances tested positive or were sealed shut in their buildings by authorities; others that fled were infected elsewhere. Colleagues are convalescing, and when not working, begging to secure intensive care beds for relatives. This is what happens when almost 30% of RT-PCR tests in a city return positive. The pandemic haunts my sleep.

I feel relatively lucky though. Mumbai’s hospitals stretched to capacity this past month, ran short on resources and a desperate fear descended on the city; evident by the number of people in my neighbourhood wearing masks properly for the first time and obeying stay-at-home rules. A Mumbai gravedigger works around the clock, though the city has been spared the severe oxygen crisis that led to many more deaths and shortages of firewood to perform mass cremations in the capital, New Delhi, and its suburbs.

Why has Mumbai done better up to now? Maybe because it locked down earlier, has better oxygen supplies and a sensible triaging system. It’s also a seemingly safer two-hour flight away from Haridwar, where during April millions of pilgrims gathered to bathe in the River Ganges for the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival turned likely super-spreader event. It took place a four-hour drive away from New Delhi. And so, while the capital region appears on fire, daily new cases in Mumbai have fallen and the positivity rate is less worrying at below 15%. Mumbai police are less fervently clearing walkers and joggers off the streets, and mask discipline is again weak.

But it’s no time to celebrate the relative accomplishments of this city of more than 12 million. The horror elsewhere makes that impossible. India’s top cities are far apart but deeply connected; families, friends and executives regularly zip between them, so New Delhi’s pain feels close. Mumbai’s streets are tentatively returning to life and residents are rushing to get vaccinated, but I know many people who haven’t left their apartments for weeks and have no intention to do so soon.

Amongst the despair, commercial life continues. Construction workers are refurbishing three flats in my block in Bollywood-favoured Bandra. It’s a small example of why the new round of lockdowns might not result in a precipitous quarterly decline in economic activity, though India’s richest banker, Uday Kotak, is leading a call for stronger national restrictions. A viral resurgence would be terrible, but I worry for the shops that cannot open for more than four hours, and for the roadside chai-seller whose livelihood depends on their customers. How many times can low-income earners endure a lockdown without much official support before the country’s already lagging development suffers long-term damage?

In a parallel universe, I’m talking to financiers working for global private equity funds that are cutting billion-dollar deals targeting Indian companies from their weekend holiday homes in Alibag, a coastal town just south of Mumbai. Down in technology hub Bengaluru barely more than a week ago, executives for Uber-rival Ola gathered in their offices, revealing plans to build the world’s largest charging network for electric scooters. And DoorDash-like food delivery giant Zomato last week filed for a $1 billion initial public offering.

The disconnect between human misery and buoyant markets is discomforting, even for a seasoned financial journalist. For foreign investors, emerging markets are an asset class that feeds off a sanitised sliver of a country. Success is relative to returns in developed markets. That’s just how it works. But it still feels grotesque when money managers drive up or hold firm on Indian indices like the Nifty 50, dominated by healthy companies like Reliance Industries (RELI.NS) and HDFC Bank (HDBK.NS), in the middle of an almighty tragedy.

While many Indians are busy debating how the crisis might affect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity it’s hard not to worry about how other developing countries will deal with any variant-driven surges or get out of this pandemic mess. India faces shortages of jabs for its own 1.35 billion people despite housing the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker.

The people are on edge, waiting to see to what extent the capital’s intense trauma will spread. In Goa, popular with tourists, the positivity rate is a frightening 40%. Philanthropists who quietly helped underwrite urgent orders for Mumbai government hospitals this past month are now preparing for a surge in less well-equipped rural areas. It’s probably too late to start sending equipment to Delhi, one co-ordinator bluntly told me, by the time most of it gets there the crisis will have moved on. I pray they get more help. It’s numbing to watch friends suffer as the health infrastructure of the world’s fifth-largest economy fails to keep up.

Many analysts and aid workers’ models suggest a rapid rise in infections will be followed by a swift decline as recovered patients carry antibodies and others get vaccinated. I want to believe them because I want to hope and because I know even the economies of remote high-altitude mountain villages depend on the health of India’s top cities. Human, financial, the concerns feel endless.

Follow @ugalani on Twitter


- India on May 3 reported more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases for a 12th straight day, taking its overall caseload to just shy of 20 million.

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