India struggles to contain coronavirus, enforce lockdown in sprawling city slums

MUMBAI (Reuters) – India faces an uphill battle to contain coronavirus outbreaks in the slums of the vast financial capital Mumbai amid fears the virus is gathering pace in the dense, unsanitary alleyways where it is next to impossible to enforce a full lockdown.

India, the world’s second most populous country after China with 1.3 billion people, has reported more than 5,800 cases of the virus, including 169 deaths, a far cry from the high tolls in several European countries and the United States.

But the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has emerged as a hotspot with over 1,100 of those cases.

Mumbai’s seaside Worli Koliwada slum is in an area that had 184 reported cases on Wednesday, as per the latest data, up from 133 the previous day. In the area home to Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, 12 had tested positive as of Wednesday, up from eight the previous day.

Mumbai authorities say the city’s high number of cases in part stems from more aggressive testing.

The local government says it has been able to quarantine more than 24,000 people to stem the outbreak, but officials privately acknowledge they face a daunting task in the slums.

“In housing societies, we need to trace a dozen people, but in slums we must find hundreds,” said one official with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a nationwide lockdown until April 14, saying it is the only way to avoid a catastrophe in India, where the public health system is weak.

But while police patrolled main roads on Thursday, food markets deep in Dharavi were open and humming, according to a Reuters photographer.

“The police charge at anyone who tries to venture out with sticks, but that has no effect,” said bank employee Ajay Kewat in Dharavi.

Yashwant Pandey, a police inspector, said it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep people inside.

“Sometimes they get angry when we tell them to go indoors and they threaten to start a protest,” he said.

While many slum residents say they approve of the lockdown, they also said they were struggling to stay inside hot, cramped single-room slums and were worried about the economic toll.

“My daughter-in-law has to change her clothes, feed the 3-month-old child, so I have to sit outside. She feels awkward,” said Ismail Mukam, who runs a tannery in Dharavi.

Amid fears of more infections, some Dharavi residents barricaded their alleyways with planks and sticks, even a cart and a bicycle.

“Please note – outsiders are not allowed,” read one sign.

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