India reopens major cities as new COVID cases hit two-month low

Capital New Delhi and financial hub Mumbai begin gradual easing of restrictions as lowest infections reported since April 6.

Indian motorists drive at a road following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, in Mumbai [Divyakant Solanki/EPA]

Key Indian cities have reopened for business, with long queues for buses in the financial hub of Mumbai while traffic returned to the roads of New Delhi after a devastating second wave of coronavirus that killed hundreds of thousands.

The 100,636 new infections of the past 24 hours were the lowest in the world’s second-most populous nation since April 6, and well off last month’s peaks of more than 400,000, allowing authorities to reopen parts of the economy.

“We have to save ourselves from infection but also bring the economy back on track,” Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter.

He ordered half the capital’s shops to open on odd- and even-numbered days of the month respectively, in a bid to limit crowds, but allowed offices and the Delhi metro rail network to run at 50 percent of capacity.

Commuters use Delhi Metro, which serves the Indian capital and adjoining areas, as it resumed operations at 50 percent capacity in New Delhi [Ishant Chauhan/AP]

But some curbs were retained, such as the ban on dining in restaurants and the use of theatres and gyms in a city still slowly recovering from a surge in the months of April and May that overwhelmed hospitals.

These ran short of beds and medical oxygen, and people died in hospital parking lots and homes, while crematoriums and morgues struggled to cope with an incessant flow of corpses.

India added 2,427 deaths overnight for a toll of 349,186, the health ministry said, down from more than 4,000 each day at the height of the crisis, while its tally of infections now stands at 28.9 million.

But experts believe that both figures have been severely undercounted and could be a few times higher than the official number.

A shopkeeper cleans his shop after markets were allowed to reopen with restrictions in New Delhi [Money Sharma/AFP]

‘Step in right direction’

Authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, allowed businesses to run until late afternoon, staffed with half their employees, and opened gyms, salons and spas, though cinemas and malls are to stay shut.

Maharashtra, India’s richest state, eased restrictions based on infection rates and hospital bed occupancy. In Mumbai – where the caseload soared to 11,163 in early April – there were just 794 new infections on Sunday.

Malls were allowed to reopen in the city with restrictions, but were reopened fully in cities with lower infection rates such as Nagpur and Aurangabad.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Rajendra Kalkar of Phoenix Mills, which manages three shopping centres in Maharashtra.

“Businesses at our malls are coming back slowly. This is a very welcome step for thousands of mall staff and retail employees.”

The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India estimated that more than two million jobs were lost during the Maharashtra lockdown.

“We are very happy to open our doors again today,” the restaurant manager of the Mumbai branch of popular eatery Social, who gave his name as Malay, told AFP.

A worker inside a store after authorities eased lockdown restrictions in New Delhi [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Experts warn that while the crisis has eased in major cities, the disease is still spreading in rural areas and some southern states.

The reopening of some cities came as authorities struggle to vaccinate the population of nearly 1.4 billion in a strategy officials say is the only way to limiting a third wave of infections.

But tight supplies have meant that fewer than 5 percent of 950 million adult Indians have received the mandatory two vaccine doses.

The pressure to resume some economic activity has grown as millions depend on daily wages to pay for food and rent.

“I have opened my shop after 40 days,” a tea vendor, Monu Yadav, told Reuters news agency’s partner ANI in the northern city of Varanasi, adding that only a fraction of his customers had returned.

Last week, the central bank cut its forecast for economic growth to 9.5 percent from 10.5 percent for the fiscal year 2021-22.

The second wave had “impaired the nascent recovery that was under way”, but “not snuffed it out”, said Shaktikanta Das, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies