• India’s confirmed coronavirus cases lag much of the world — less than 200 in a nation of 1.3 billion
  • Whether India’s use of technology and antibiotics has prevented infections or if the country simply has missed cases are open questions.
  • Experts caution testing is minimal and that a wave of infections is coming

India, the world’s second-most-populous country, has fewer confirmed coronavirus cases than other major economies, but whether the country’s response to the pandemic has worked or if it’s simply the government missing cases is yet to be answered.

Just 151 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the nation of more than 1.3 billion people as of Tuesday afternoon New York time, according to the World Health Organization. They include 125 Indians and 26 foreign nationals. Fourteen patients have recovered and three have died. That puts it 44th on the WHO’s list of countries with cases.

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has sickened and killed thousands and forced the closure of schools, businesses and government offices around the world. Financial markets are tumbling over fears of a world recession.

All the cases in India have been “traceable,” with no evidence of community spread, Dr. Henk Bekedam, the WHO’s representative in India, told the New York Times. He credited the country with an aggressive response to the virus.  

Early on, the government used GPS tracking of quarantine locations, spatio-temporal flow maps of route movements, CCTV footage, call records and neighborhood watch staff to track a family from Kerala that was infected while in Italy and didn’t show up for mandatory check-ins at a local hospital, The Indian Express reported on its website.

Guidelines published by the Ministry of Health on Twitter on Tuesday include “Install thermal scanners at entry of government building as feasible” and “mandatorily place hand sanitizers at entry points.”

While people around the world have been compelled to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus, India’s young are packing pubs and largely living normal lives, the Times reported. Indian government officials are on social media calling for social distancing and frequent hand washing — and they have also escalated travel restrictions — but the efforts are minimal compared with harder-hit countries.

“Social distancing is the best non-pharma infection prevention & control intervention to decrease spread, morbidity & mortality due to #COVID2019,” Dr. Harsh Vardhan, minister of health and family welfare, said Monday on Twitter.

There are almost 185,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world, according to the WHO’s situation report. There are about 82,000 in China, almost 28,000 in Italy, more than 16,000 in Iran, more than 11,000 in Spain and more than 8,000 in South Korea. Other countries with more than 1,000 confirmed cases include France, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Austria and Sweden.

Scientists say they don’t know why India is reporting such low numbers. Some credit the early technological response and others cite the country’s relatively young population since younger people seem to resist the worst of the virus. India is also one of the largest producers of generic drugs in the world and antibiotics are freely dispensed, an advantage when dealing with an illness in which most of the casualties come from secondary infections.

But others say not so fast. Many cases are likely going undetected because of problems with testing. And they question whether the detection rates are politicized.

Leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party have touted the use of cow urine as a cure for cancer and other illnesses, and a group called the All India Hindu Union hosted a cow-urine drinking party on Saturday that was attended by hundreds of people, Reuters reported.

“For a population of its size, #India has only reported 113 cases,” Steve Hanke, an applied economist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, said on Twitter. “This is hard to believe. Testing is not widespread and #Modi’s #BJP leaders tout phony treatments like #Homeopathy & #CowUrine. This is a recipe for disaster. #CoronavirusIndia.”

Modi has said that “no stone is being left unturned to ensure people are healthy.”

But Dr. T. Jacob John, the former head of the Indian Council for Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology, said it may not be enough. He told Bloomberg that there’s an “avalanche” coming and that the number of cases in India will increase 10-fold by April 15.

“As every week passes, the avalanche is growing bigger and bigger,” he said.

(Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)