India’s Covid cases are doubling as Omicron threatens economic recovery

India has tightened its Covid-19 restrictions as a wave of infections threatens the country’s robust economic recovery from last year’s devastating outbreak of the Delta variant.

The country’s daily new infections have more than doubled in three days to 117,100 from Friday morning, while the number of active cases has risen nearly 73 percent to 371,363.

The rise followed a busy period of social events in India, including major religious festivals and holidays and the country’s wedding season.

The capital New Delhi and several states have introduced night and weekend curfews and limited capacity in hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and cinemas. However, the authorities have withdrawn from introducing measures that are just as cumbersome as during previous shutdowns in the belief that the Omicron variant is less life-threatening.

“Corona poses challenges, but it can not stop the growth process,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first speech of the year.

After one of the world’s most severe shutdowns at the start of the pandemic, India’s gross domestic product fell a record 24.4 percent between April and June 2020. Last year, it began to recover and grew 8.4 percent year on year from July to September and 20.1 percent the previous quarter, according to official statistics.

But the restrictions to cope with the recent outbreak will affect services such as hospitality and education and “will slow the momentum of [the economic recovery]”, According to Dharma Kirti Joshi, chief economist at the rating agency Crisil.

High unemployment and insidious price increases hit India’s poorest, economists said, creating a difficult balance for policy makers between taking care of public health and letting people work.

While Omicron has so far produced a lower number of admissions, experts warn that the virus is unpredictable. They worry about the potential for a repeat of India’s disastrous second wave last year, in which the Delta variant killed hundreds of thousands and ransacked the country’s fragile health infrastructure.

Lancelot Pinto, a consultant respirologist at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja National Hospital, said most Covid patients he had seen so far had “extremely mild” symptoms.

But “what I really fear is it […] two to three weeks along the way, the small proportion of individuals who need oxygen may find that hospital beds are already full. He said Covid isolation devices were already filled up with patients who were hospitalized for other conditions but who were then tested positive for the virus.

According to data from the Ministry of Health, the state of Maharashtra, home of India’s financial capital Mumbai, has been one of the worst hit by the latest wave. Maharashtra’s prime minister tested positive on Tuesday.

Health authorities are pushing people to get vaccinated, with 64 per cent of India’s adult population vaccinated in December, while 90 per cent have received at least one dose. India started grafting children aged between 15 and 18 this week.

Yet the fresh uncertainty aroused anxiety among business people.

In a modest electronics store in Varanasi on the Ganges River, colorful boxes surrounded store owner Pradeep Joshi – unsold fixtures from the previous year.

“My business has revived nearly 40 percent in recent months, but sales have started to fall again,” said Joshi, who distributed fans and household appliances.

“Now because of the Omicron threat, people will once again stick to their basic needs,” Joshi worried. He said shoppers might want household appliances “but their wallets will not allow” them to buy them.

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