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With India’s new Covid-19 cases declining, is it time for New Delhi to emerge from lockdown?

May 26, 2021 GMT

As India slowly begins to emerge from the horrors of its second Covid-19 wave, it looks as though New Delhi may on June 1 become the first city to take tentative steps out of lockdown.

After extending its sweeping coronavirus restrictions on a week-by-week basis from April 19, the capital’s government is feeling more confident that the decline in new cases suggests the worst might be over.

New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal this week said the situation was “vastly improved”, with the city’s positivity rate falling steadily throughout May from 36 per cent at the height of the surge to its current 2.5 per cent.

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India is reporting just under 200,000 fresh Covid-19 cases per day, its lowest tally since April 14, while the capital’s 1,500 or so new cases per day are the lowest since March 27 ” down from a high of 28,000 daily cases last month. If cases continue to decline, experts say, Kejriwal may decide over the weekend to open up.

He is under pressure to do so from shopkeepers and traders who have been reeling from lockdown losses. Khan Market, a popular shopping and dining destination for affluent residents, is prime real estate. Traders here have massive rents to pay, along with property taxes and fixed charges.

“We have been asking Kejriwal to open in a staggered manner. You see, people aren’t stupid. They aren’t going to throng markets the day you open. They are going to quickly do their chores and go home,” said Sanjiv Mehta, president of the Khan Market Traders’ Association.

He has a point. If few people are going to be rushing out, it’s because residents have been traumatised by their horrific experiences over the past two months. Barely any families have been untouched by suffering, death or the anguish of having relatives in intensive care units, often for weeks. Many families have had several members sick with the coronavirus.

New Delhi has been battered by four waves of infections, and people have been dying not only directly from Covid-19 but from the lack of a bed or oxygen. For those who have survived, memories are fresh and raw.

Lawyer Gauri Grover, 42, has been unable to process some of the tragic stories in her social circle. “A good friend, also a lawyer, lost both his parents within a week. He got Covid-19 himself and ended up with (a potentially deadly infection of) black fungus,” she said.

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“He had to have an eye removed to save his life. What can you say to him?”

Another factor that will keep people inside even if the lockdown is lifted on Tuesday is that many feel unprotected because vaccinations have slowed to a trickle.

New Delhi recently shut down 400 vaccination centres owing to an acute shortage of doses. People between the ages of 18 and 45 who were meant to be getting the jab have been told not to even bother trying, as the city’s limited supply will have to be given to the more vulnerable older age group or to those whose second dose is due.

“I was desperate to get vaccinated. It’s the only way to feel you are not totally exposed to the virus, but now I’m going to have to wait,” said jewellery designer Tania Aggarwal, 23.

The fear has been heightened by the explosion of black fungus infections. Hospitals in Delhi have recorded 300 cases ” an unheard of figure for this usually rare infection.

“It’s something you associate with some distant village, not the capital of the country and not in the best private hospitals in the city,” Aggarwal said.

Chief Minister Kejriwal has made it clear that if he lifts the lockdown, restrictions will be removed in phases, with restaurants the last to open. In fact, some observers think he might want to play it extra safe and not stick his neck out to become the first big city in the country to reopen.

“I’ve been hearing he might want to postpone lifting the lockdown and instead do it in parallel with neighbouring states like Haryana or Uttar Pradesh,” said Mehta of the Khan Market Traders’ Association.

Professor K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, hopes Kejriwal will look at a variety of factors before making his decision, and points out that the much-touted positivity rate is not the only criterion.

“There is also the growth rate in the weekly average of the number of new persons testing positive. Another indicator is the moving weekly average of Covid-19-diagnosed or highly suspected deaths,” he said.

“Yet another is hospital admissions, especially those requiring oxygen or mechanical ventilation. While each of these will not yield precise estimates, they will indicate the trend. If they all move in the same direction, it is encouraging.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.