Coronavirus cases in India have crossed the eight million mark with the world’s second-worst hit country now bracing for a possible second wave ahead of winter.
With 49,881 new reported infections on Thursday, India now has 8,040,203 COVID-19 cases and 120,527 deaths, according to the latest government figures.
The world’s second-most populous nation and home to 1.3 billion people has the second-highest tally of infections after the United States, which has recorded 8.9 million cases.
Cases in India have dipped sharply from September’s peak, but experts warn the onset of winter and the current festival season could bring another spike.
Also, the death toll has been low relative to the number of infections, with 517 new deaths recorded in the last 24 hours – one of the lowest death rates in the world.
Meanwhile, life in India is edging back to pre-virus levels with shops, businesses, subway trains and movie theatres reopening. The country’s third-largest state of Bihar, with a population of about 122 million people, is also holding elections.
Authorities are also preparing for a new surge after Indians celebrate Diwali, the most important Hindu festival, on November 14.
A stringent lockdown imposed in March has gradually been eased as the government seeks to reboot the economy after the loss of millions of jobs nationwide.
But experts say this has helped the spread of the virus.
New Delhi recorded 5,000 new cases on Wednesday, its highest daily figure since the outbreak of the pandemic. Officials warn the capital could see more than 10,000 cases a day in the next wave.
Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told the Times of India newspaper that if cases continued to surge, the country’s fragile healthcare system “will get really stressed”.
Authorities are also worried about the southern state of Kerala and West Bengal in the east – which have seen worrying spikes in cases.
The financial capital of Mumbai, which is India’s worst-hit city with more than 250,000 cases and over 10,000 deaths, is currently adding about 2,000 cases a day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned the people in recent speeches that they are being “careless” by not practising social distancing and taking other precautions against the virus.
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health and a leading infectious disease expert, said research has shown that a combination of cooler and drier air spreads the virus more efficiently.
“In drier air, those droplets tend to be smaller and can linger in the air,” Jha said.