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India Surpasses Brazil, Moves Into 2nd Place For COVID-19 Cases

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States still has more coronavirus cases than any other nation on earth, but India is catching up. The U.S., for the record, has more than 6.2 million cases. India is now second in the world with 4.2 million. Joanna Slater is the India bureau chief for The Washington Post and is on the line from New Delhi.

Welcome to the program.

JOANNA SLATER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What's going wrong in India?

SLATER: Well, India is in a very difficult predicament at the moment. It has a situation where the number of infections is large and accelerating, and the economy is hobbled. And there's no sign that infections have peaked. So it's really just - it's just a very, very tough situation.

INSKEEP: Although I'm thinking about - 4.2 is an appalling number of cases, but we are talking about a country of more than a billion people, where I suppose it might be possible for this to be happening and you don't even realize it Do you sense it as you walk along the streets of New Delhi that something is happening here?

SLATER: You certainly sense insofar as you see people wearing masks. Most of the people here are wearing masks but not all of them. And once again, there are traffic jams in Delhi, for example, where I live. And things have basically reopened after a very severe lockdown earlier this spring. So you don't necessarily see it in the streets, but there is, of course, a growing sense of concern at the number of cases and how quickly they're rising.

INSKEEP: How are hospitals doing?

SLATER: Hospitals, at the moment, are holding up. There was a moment earlier in the outbreak in May and June when it really did look like the health care system was going to buckle in places like Mumbai and Delhi. You know, we spoke to a number of families who had just desperate searches for hospital beds for their loved ones only to be turned away again and again and told that the hospitals were full. In those two big cities, the situation eased a little bit over the summer. But now it is getting worse again. And one of the other worrisome things that's happening now is the virus is moving - or has moved - from India's cities to its vast hinterland, where the health system is even less equipped to cope.

INSKEEP: Joanna, you've mentioned a few elements that can affect the spread of the coronavirus. You talked about a lockdown and a reopening. You talked about people wearing masks. Does the government have a clear strategy and clear set of priorities here. And if so, what are they?

SLATER: The government has had different priorities at different points in time. It tried implementing a severe lockdown. With about four hours' notice, it shut down this entire country of 1.3 billion people. But the result was economic devastation, so it had to relax those restrictions. It had to reverse course. And that is the strategy it has adopted now. And that's the direction in which India is going, toward progressive reopening. The only major thing that remains closed in India now is schools. Whether the government is going to reassess that strategy or second-guess that strategy, we don't know now at the moment. But there is no sign of it.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the current world leader in cases the United States, where the president - President Trump's administration, just as a statement of fact, has had chaotic messaging. The president has often endorsed conspiracy theories, contradicted his own public health officials. And of course, you have state officials going their own ways and attempting their own strategies. How does the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi compare? Has Prime Minister Modi recognized this threat and spoken about it clearly?

SLATER: Yes, he has. That is a major difference between India and the United States - and Brazil, as well. So unlike President Trump or President Bolsonaro, Prime Minister Modi has never downplayed the virus or told Indian citizens to go about their normal lives. He has consistently talked about the virus as a very dangerous threat and from the beginning has appeared in public with either a mask or a face covering.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that the speed of this virus is going to cause a lockdown, whether the government does it or not - people are just not going to be willing to go about their lives?

SLATER: As of now, I don't think so because the silver lining - if I can use that term - is that the number of deaths in India, according to official statistics, is still relatively low. So there's not that same public pressure that you might see elsewhere.

INSKEEP: Ms. Slater, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

SLATER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Joanna Slater is the India bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she's in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.