Is India beating Covid-19? Experts are divided as data shows mysterious recovery

A big drop in Covid-19 cases could be because of poor testing, the tropical climate or a youthful population

People assist a mass marriage event in Mumbai on February 14, 2021. / AFP / INDRANIL MUKHERJEE

For the home to the world’s second-largest Covid-19 outbreak, life in India is almost back to normal.

Whether the South African variant will breach the immunity wall and create a second pandemic is unpredictable

Shopping mall parking lots are full again. Stores are buzzing, and there are long lines at hair salons and restaurants.

“We just got fed up sitting at home, for how long can you do that?” said Kaniz Zehra, a 32-year-old stay-at-home parent to a toddler and a five-year-old. In recent months, she’s flown for two domestic holidays; last month, she braved the crowds at the DLF Mall of India, one of the country’s largest, outside of New Delhi.

“Initially there was a fear of getting the infection,” she said. “But now it appears it hasn’t affected Indians as badly as it hit people in other countries.”

While the US and large territories of Europe remain in crisis and China stays vigilant over new outbreaks, concerns about Covid-19 seem to have ebbed across India. Infection and death rates have dropped, and as shoppers such as Ms Zehra re-emerge, the economy and consumer companies are posting strong gains, far sooner than most expected.

The steady decline of reported Covid-19 infections in India has puzzled scientists, especially given that many countries are battling second, third and fourth waves. Since daily cases peaked close to 100,000 in September, new transmissions have dropped nearly 90 per cent. Deaths have fallen by a similar rate, from more than 1,000 a day in September to fewer than 100 now.

Epidemiologists have questioned those numbers, pointing to low rates of testing and habitual underreporting of causes of death, particularly in rural India. But even if the numbers are artificially low, a lull in the country’s Covid-19 wards suggests the trend is real.

Government economists are predicting 11 per cent economic growth for the financial year that begins on April 1, enough to reverse the 7.7 per cent contraction in 2020. "Consumer confidence is reviving," Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das said this month, pointing to renewed domestic migration, growing demand for energy and electricity as well as other indicators.

Already, some of the nation's largest retail and consumer companies are reaping the fruit of Indians' pent-up demand. Reliance Industries posted record profits for the quarter that ended in December, buoyed by billionaire Mukesh Ambani's growing bet on retail. Aditya Birla Group's fashion retail business also reported quarterly profits, after a corresponding loss in the same period a year ago.

Nomura Holdings' India Business Resumption Index showed a sharp increase this month, coming within 3.5 percentage points of its pre-pandemic level.

In this handout photograph taken on February 14, 2021 and released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB), India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses a gathering in Chennai.  - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /PIB " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

“In Mumbai and Delhi – the two main cities in India which were also the worst affected – life certainly seems to be back to normal in terms of movement,” said Abhishek Gupta, who covers India at Bloomberg Economics.

Returning confidence has so far been offset by worsening poverty, with an estimated 85 million swelling the ranks of the newly poor, especially migrant workers who fled urban centres during last year's lockdown.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes that the vaccination drive that began in January will spur a wider recovery. So far, vaccine uptake has been slower than officials hoped, the implementation beset by technical hiccups. Frontline workers have also reported scepticism following the hasty approval of a local vaccine before it reached final-stage tests

Homegrown Covid Vaccine controversy 

“I don’t think anyone really thinks that without vaccines and a vaccination programme being widely available that we can go back to whatever is full normalcy,” said Sireesha Yadlapalli, a senior director at the United States Pharmacopeia, a 200-year-old scientific non-profit organisation, in Hyderabad. “Hopefully this is the slowdown and there’s no second wave.”

It is too early to say whether India's current resilience will persist. Some experts have speculated the country has already achieved herd immunity. A study conducted in the southern state of Karnataka suggested a little under half its more than 60 million residents had been infected by August, a number more than 90 times higher than the official figure at the time.

Others have also pointed to India's youthful population or to unproven theories that widespread exposure to a high number of tropical diseases confers some protection against Covid-19. For now, though, "there has been a reduction in fear", said Jacob John, former head of the Centre for Advanced Research in Virology at the the Indian Council of Medical Research. "Whether the South African variant will breach the immunity wall and create a second pandemic, with India participating with a new wave, is unpredictable."