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India hits 2 million coronavirus cases as health volunteers strike

As India hit another grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, crossing 2 million cases and more than 41,000 deaths, community health volunteers went on strike complaining they were ill-equipped to respond to the wave of infection in rural areas.

Even as India has maintained comparatively low mortality rates, the disease trajectory varies widely across the country with the burden shifting from cities with relatively robust health systems to rural areas, where resources are scarce or nonexistent.

The Health Ministry reported 62,538 cases in the past 24 hours, raising the nation’s total to 2,027,074. Also, 886 people died, for a total of 41,585.

The ministry said that recoveries were also growing. India has the third-highest caseload in the world after the United States and Brazil. It has the fifth-most deaths but its fatality rate of about 2 percent is far lower than the top two hardest-hit countries. The rate in the US is 3.3 percent, and in Brazil 3.4 percent, Johns Hopkins University figures showed.

The caseload in the world’s second-most populous country has quickly expanded since the government began lifting a months-long lockdown hoping to jump-start a moribund economy. India is projecting negative economic growth in 2020.

Life cautiously returned to the streets of the capital of New Delhi and financial hub Mumbai, which appear to have passed their peaks.

But state and local governments elsewhere in India were reimposing lockdowns after sharp spikes in cases.

Around 900,000 members of an all-female community health force began a two-day strike on Friday, protesting that they were being roped in to help with contact tracing, personal hygiene drives and in quarantine centers, but weren’t given personal protective equipment or additional pay, according to organizer A.R. Sindhu.

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The health workers, known as Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA, which means ‘hope’ in several Indian languages, have been deployed in each village on behalf of the Health Ministry. Their work ranges from escorting children to immunization clinics to counseling women on childbirth.

But while their regular work hasn’t reduced, they are increasingly being involved by state governments in the fight against the pandemic, said Sindhu.

“But ASHA workers don’t have masks or PPEs or even sanitizers,” she said.

She added that although the work has increased and become more dangerous, their salaries remain static at roughly 2,000 rupees ($27) per month And the families of at least a dozen women who she said died from the virus didn’t receive compensation from India’s federal insurance for front-line health care workers because their deaths were not recorded as COVID-19 deaths.

Manisha Verma, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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