India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are home to more than a fifth of the world’s population
India reported its biggest single day increase in coronavirus cases as officials on Thursday raced to track down some 9,000 people exposed to the country's biggest infection cluster during a Muslim missionary group's gathering in the capital last month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed the world's second most populous nation under a three-week lockdown until mid-April, and so far the number of coronavirus cases lags hard hit countries like the United States, Italy and Spain.
As of Thursday, 58 people had died, but there are fears the death toll would explode if the contagion reaches epidemic proportions among India's 1.3 billion people.
The number of cases jumped by more than half to 1,965 on Wednesday, fuelled by infections among people who either attended prayers and lectures at the Tablighi Jamaat's headquarters in a packed densely-packed Delhi neighbourhood or came into contact with them later.
A government official said about 9,000 people linked to the Delhi cluster were unaccounted for, of which 2,000 were identified as officials of the Tablighi and the rest were described as primary contacts.
About 2,300 people, including Bangladeshis, Indonesians and Malaysians, who had been staying at the Tablighi's cramped dormitories in Delhi, were transferred to quarantine centres in the city during the past few days.
India’s flurry of new cases has experts warning that it may be hard to contain a spread in densely populated South Asia with its generally poor medical infrastructure.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are home to some 1.7 billion people, or more than a fifth of the world’s population, but their over-stretched health systems could struggle to handle the type of intensive care required for coronavirus patients.
On top of that, a prevalence of existing health problems such as diabetes could spell trouble while the sort of sweeping restrictions China has imposed to stifle the virus would be hugely difficult in South Asia’s more unruly cities.
“The way Indian society is structured, the kind of lockdown that many countries including China and Japan have instituted, is pretty much impossible even under good circumstances,” said VivekanandJha, executive director of the George Institute for Public Health, in New Delhi.
Some health experts fear that even with the recent spike in cases, India’s actual tally could be much bigger.
“There is a strong possibility that the number of cases in India is much higher than what has been detected,” Arunkumar G, director of the Manipal Institute of Virology, said, citing a virus incubation of up to two weeks.
“One particular risk of India is the co-existence of other non-communicable disease epidemics,” Dr Rajib Dasgupta, who is a professor of community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Neighboring Pakistan has found 2,118 coronavirus cases. A top health official was gloomy about the prospects of tackling a major outbreak.
“We don’t have human resources, we don’t have the required inventory, we don’t have a capacity to cope with a big emergency with the given resources,” Shahid Malik, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association, told Reuters.