Strains in hard-hit Mumbai complicate India's virus recovery

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FILE- In this April 18, 2020 file photo, children wait to receive free food distributed in a slum during a lockdown to check the spread of the new coronavirus in Mumbai, India. As Indians await details of a huge coronavirus relief package Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced to jump-start the economy, the virus outbreak in the financial capital of Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra state is starting to overwhelm hospitals, prisons and slums, complicating any economic recovery plan. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)

NEW DELHI – As Indians await details of a huge coronavirus relief package Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced to jump-start the economy, the virus outbreak in the financial capital of Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra state is starting to overwhelm hospitals and slums, complicating any economic recovery plan.

About a third of India's 71,865 confirmed virus cases, and nearly 40% of its 2,415 deaths, have been reported in Maharashtra, the coastal state in the center of the country that is home to Bollywood, a huge agriculture industry and India's largest stock market. The Sensex has sunk about 25% from its year-to-date high in January.

Health experts have praised Modi's government for enforcing a stringent weeks-long lockdown that has helped the nation of 1.3 billion so far avoid the kind of catastrophic rates of illness and death that have beset the United States, Britain and elsewhere. But as India's lockdown restrictions are eased, whether the country can steer its economy back on track will largely depend on how Maharashtra rebounds, experts say.

“It’s a huge impact,” Gurcharan Das, the former head of Procter & Gamble in India, said of the state. “I think the default position should be to open, and you only lock down by exception, because eventually I fear that the cost of the lockdown will be far greater in lives even than the disease."

India’s lockdown, imposed March 25, is set to at least partially end May 18. Some restrictions on manufacturing, agriculture and self-employment were lifted May 4 to ease the burden on the poor and informal sector workers who comprise the majority of India’s workforce.

Indian Railways also partially reopened to run special trains carrying migrant workers stranded in the lockdown who fled India's big cities, including Mumbai, for their village homes. At least some of the passengers carried the coronavirus with them, infection spikes in the states of Bihar and Orisha corresponding with their arrival show.

In an address Tuesday night, Modi said the government would spend more than $260 billion to revive the economy. The government described some details of the package, including income tax cuts, liquidity injections for cash-strapped companies and government-backed bank loans. It also said it would bar foreign companies from competing in bidding for government contracts of up to $26 million, in a nod to the self-reliance and protectionist policies outlined in Modi’s address.

Ritu Dewan, vice president of the New Delhi-based Indian Society of Labor Economics, said the government should do more to address the needs of India's poor.