March 24, 2020

The numbers of officially confirmed cases are very low. But they’re likely masking a deeper problem in the world’s second-most-populous country.

At first glance, India seems like a coronavirus success story, with its relatively low number of cases compared with the rest of the world. But a closer look reveals a grim reality: It’s likely only months away from a major health crisis.

According to the government’s official numbers, as of March 24, the country has fewer than 500 total cases of Covid-19, and only nine people have died from the disease. For a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, the world’s second largest behind China, those figures seem almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, experts say the numbers almost certainly are too good to be true, and may be masking a much larger outbreak.

Perhaps recognizing this possibility, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a three-week lockdown for all of India. “To save India and every Indian, there will be a total ban on venturing out of your homes,” he said in a national address.

Despite swift and early moves to restrict air travel, the central government’s main problem is the quality and scarcity of testing. Without the data from that testing, Indian health officials are being forced to make life-or-death decisions without reliable information about who does and who doesn’t carry Covid-19.

“We’ve been proactive, but blindfolded,” Shamika Ravi, a health policy expert at the Brookings Institution in India, told me.

That would be a challenge for any country, but for India it’s particularly devastating. Public health care in the country is poor. Private health care is expensive. About a quarter of the population is illiterate and thus may not be as aware of the danger. And a massive citizenry makes social distancing nearly impossible — a big issue when around 100 million people in the country are over the age of 60…

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