India Surges Past 2 Million Coronavirus Cases, Angry Health Workers Launch A Strike​

MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - India, the country hardest hit in Asia by the coronavirus pandemic, reported on Friday a record daily jump in infections, taking its total number of cases over two million, as government struggled to contain the spread amid striking health workers.

A health worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) collects a sample using a swab from a person at a local health centre to conduct tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Delhi, India August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

More than 3.5 million health workers, who have been the foot-soldiers in the Covid-19 detection efforts across India, embarked on a two-day strike from Friday to secure better wages and proper protective equipment.

"At least 100 health workers have died of Covid-19 in the country so far, but there has been no insurance provided to them by the government," said A. R, Sindhu secretary of the Centre of Trade Unions, a key participant in the ongoing strike.

Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers, are the government's recognised health workers who are usually the first point of contact in economically deprived sections, where there is limited or no direct access to health-care facilities. 

They have been conducting door-to-door checks to trace Covid-19 patients.

A total of 10 unions representing the workers, who also include ambulance drivers and cooks at community centers, joined the strike. A majority of them work on contracts with state governments at a monthly salary of about 3,000 Indian rupees ($40.02).

A health worker sits next to the body of a woman who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), before her burial at a graveyard, in New Delhi, India, August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

"In some places, we had a lot of difficulty reaching households, especially in the mountainous regions... Households would be very far apart and we had to get to each of them on foot," Nagalakshmi.D, a union leader of ASHA workers in the southern state of Karnataka told Reuters. 

"During rains, we had to cross rivers by boat and rope bridges too,"she said.

With infections spreading further to smaller towns and rural areas, experts say the epidemic in India is likely to be months away from hitting its peak, putting more strain on an already overburdened healthcare system in a nation of 1.3 billion people.

India is the third nation to pass the unwanted milestone of two million Covid-19 cases, lagging behind only the United States and Brazil.

India has been posting an average of around 50,000 new cases a day since mid-June, but experts say its testing rate at 16,035 per million people is far too low.

"A country of India's size and diversity has multiple epidemics in different phases," said Rajib Dasgupta, head of the  Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Still, the government has taken some solace from the relatively low death rate, at about 2%, with 41,585 deaths so far, though that figure will be understated as only deaths of people who have been tested for the virus are counted.