Asia

‘Rural Surge’ Propels India Toward More Covid-19 Infections Than U.S.

The contagion is hitting towns and villages where resources are scant and people are skeptical of lockdown efforts. If unchecked, Indian infections could exceed those in the United States.



By Karan Deep Singh and Jeffrey Gettleman

MASLI, India — Sliding out of their rickshaw, masks on, fresh sanitizer smeared across their hands, a team of health workers approached one of the mud-walled homes in Masli, a remote village in northeast India surrounded by miles of mountainous rainforest.

“Are you Amit Deb?” they asked a lean, shirtless man standing in his yard. Mr. Deb nodded cautiously. Five days earlier, he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Now his family members needed to be tested.

They all refused.

“We can’t afford to quarantine,” explained Mr. Deb, a shopkeeper. If anyone else in his family was found positive, they would all be ordered to stay inside, which would mean even more weeks of not working, which would push the family closer to running out of food.

The medical team moved on to the next house. But they kept meeting more refusals.

The defiance of the coronavirus rules is being reflected across rural India, and it is propelling this nation’s virus caseload toward the No. 1 spot globally. Infections are rippling into every corner of this country of 1.3 billion people. The Indian news media is calling it “The Rural Surge.”

In the Indian megacities where the pandemic first hit, vigorous public awareness campaigns have left the populace mostly on guard. But when it comes to government efforts to contain the virus, rural India is resisting.

In many villages, no one is wearing masks. There is no social distancing. People are refusing to get tested and they are hiding their sick.

Hospitals are straining; in the coronavirus ward of one hospital here in the state of Tripura, insects were left to crawl over corpses, according to photos from a former government official.

In recent trips to more than a dozen rural areas spread across several states, from Tamil Nadu in the south to West Bengal in the far west, to Tripura, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the north, the reaction to the pandemic appeared to be completely different from that of the big cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Out in the rural areas, many people behave as if there is no coronavirus. Even many police officers who have been empowered to enforce the pandemic rules are not wearing masks.

This intransigence has helped India catch up with the United States in terms of total infections. U.S. cases are near 7.6 million, compared with India’s 6.8 million, according to a New York Times database. But India outpaces new American cases by 30,000 or so each day, putting it on a path to potentially surpass the United States in the coming weeks.

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