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India Is Expected To Surpass The U.S. In Reported Coronavirus Cases Soon

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To India now, where the Taj Mahal reopened this week for the first time in more than six months. But that is not an indication the pandemic has subsided there. In fact, India has more new cases daily than any other country. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thousands of shoppers crowd the streets of Mumbai's famous Dadar flower market. Vendors hawk garlands of marigolds, and people shove past each other - no social distancing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Check your health status before leaving for the metro station.

FRAYER: Public transit is back up and running. Most schools are closed, but almost everything else - gyms, temples, malls and restaurants - are all back open. And the coronavirus is surging.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Now let's turn to COVID-19. And the fastest-spreading outbreak in the world at the moment is in India.

FRAYER: India is on track to soon surpass the U.S. in terms of reported cases. It's not that India didn't take this seriously. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a mask in public very early on. Back in March, he imposed the biggest coronavirus lockdown in the world.

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "You are not allowed out of your homes, starting at midnight," Modi told the nation at the time. It was sudden, and it was severe, recalls Dr. Sonali Vaid, a public health expert.

SONALI VAID: The lockdown was announced with a four-hour notice, so imagine people are just stuck where they are, which led to a complete breakdown of trust, especially among the poorer populations.

FRAYER: In India, that's hundreds of millions of people. At the time, coronavirus deaths were in the single digits. So it was the lockdown itself - with factories closed, wages lost, food supply chains disrupted - that put people's lives in danger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: This migrant worker got stranded at her workplace, unable to reach her 2-year-old son. "He's crying. He says, Mommy, come home. I can't live without him," she wailed.

Countless Indians starved to death as they trekked to their home villages. With scenes like this playing out all spring, the Indian government reversed course and in May began lifting its lockdown.

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MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "The coronavirus is here to stay," Modi addressed the nation again. "So we have to learn to live with it," he said. Since then, things have been gradually opening up, and the virus has reached almost every corner of the country, even Indigenous tribes on the remote Andaman Islands. At first, it overwhelmed the big cities. Urban elites had trouble finding hospital beds. People were dying in parking lots outside. Now the virus is spreading in poor rural areas where literacy is low, health care is scant and misinformation can fly.

RANJANA DWIVEDI: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "People here say there's no such thing as the virus, that it's all nonsense," says Ranjana Dwivedi, a community health worker NPR reached by phone in a small village in central India. This week in Parliament, India's health minister scolded citizens.

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HARSH VARDHAN: Irresponsible behavior. (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "We lifted the lockdown. People relaxed, and they got irresponsible," he says. Still, there are reasons to be hopeful, says Dr. John Victor Peter. He runs a hospital chain in South India. He notes the fatality rate appears to be low, likely because of India's young demographics. And the country is now doing a million COVID tests a day, yielding a more accurate picture of just how far this virus has spread.

JOHN VICTOR PETER: The raw numbers frighten people. But we may be fast approaching herd immunity.

FRAYER: And herd immunity, if achieved, he says, may help India until a vaccine is ready.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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