NEW DELHI: A few weeks ago, crematoriums in New Delhi were operating 24 hours a day to care for victims of COVID-19. Today, the shopping centers and markets of the Indian capital are once again buzzing.
But doctors fear India may drop guard again, just like in January and February before a devastating wave of coronavirus that led to a virtual collapse of the healthcare system.
Holding a bag of clothes as she went shopping with her new husband in Delhi’s busy Select City Walk mall, Surili Gupta said she was “fed up with being locked inside”.
“I needed this break, how long can you stay locked up?” the 26-year-old sales manager told AFP as she waited for a table in the mall’s crowded dining room.
“The coronavirus isn’t going anytime soon so you have to learn to live with it. I’m sure with the vaccines and everything, you’ll be fine.”
Behind her, a large weekend crowd chatted and laughed at Indian dosas and Chinese noodles, ignoring public announcements reminding them of social distancing and wearing masks.
A couple queuing at a popular burger restaurant argued, masks hung over their faces.
Mall staff performed shallow temperature checks and reminded people to sanitize their hands.
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Nearby, shoppers thronged the maze of shops and open-air stalls at Lajpat Nagar Market, haggling for scarves, bracelets and inexpensive cosmetics.
There was a bustling trade for food vendors, who sold kulchey-chholey – flatbread served with spicy chickpeas – and other punters’ favorites, masks dangling as they ate.
“I wouldn’t have come today but it was very urgent,” Prerna Jain, 21, a student who came with her mother, told AFP.
“My cousin is getting married and I needed to buy some stuff. I know it’s not sure yet, but what can I do? This (event) is just as important.”
Delhi, a megalopolis of 20 million people, saw horrific scenes in April and May when coronavirus cases exploded, as they did across the country.
Crematoriums were running out of space, burning bodies day and night, as panting patients died outside hospitals, unable to obtain beds, oxygen and medicine.
India’s death toll has more than doubled to over 330,000, according to official figures. Many experts suspect that the real toll is over a million.
The outbreak has been blamed on newer variants of the virus, but also on the government allowing massive religious festivals, state elections and crowds at cricket matches.
Now the wave is over and Indian authorities are easing the lockdowns, allowing people to work and shop again.
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On some days in Delhi now, there are no funerals for COVID-19 victims, up from 700 a day during the recent peak.
Sandeep Budhiraja, medical director of Max Healthcare in the capital, said he was surprised by people’s short memories.
“People behave like nothing happened about two or three weeks ago. And it’s … amazing,” Budhiraja told AFP.
But while this will likely lead to a sharp increase in cases, for another “explosion” a new variant of the virus is expected to set in, he said.
A new variant, “Delta-plus”, has been identified which appears to be more transmissible and more resistant to treatment, he added.
One reason for hope, however, is that unlike January and February, authorities are preparing the healthcare system for a new wave, Budhiraja said.
But vaccinations remain slow. Barely 5 percent of Indians have had two injections.
“Until the country is vaccinated, with over a billion people vaccinated, we can never think of the end of the pandemic,” Budhiraja said.