India is considering plans to seal off coronavirus hotspots in Delhi, Mumbai and parts of the south while easing restrictions elsewhere as a way out of a three-week lockdown that has caused deep economic distress, officials said on Wednesday.
The sweeping clampdown in the country of 1.3 billion people to prevent an epidemic of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, ends on April 14 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to decide this week whether to extend it.
He told a conference of political leaders on Wednesday that several state governments had asked for an extension of the lockdown to cope with the outbreak. But he also said that India was facing serious economic challenges, according to a statement issued by his office.
Scenes of poor migrant workers and their families walking long distances on empty highways to their homes in the countryside after losing their jobs have increased pressure on Modi to reopen parts of Asia's third largest economy.
More than 80% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India, the world's second most populous country, have been traced to 62 districts representing less than 10% of India's landmass, according to government data.
These are concentrated in the western state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, the capital Delhi and the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala.
Many parts of the country have not reported a single case.
Such a skewed geographical spread strengthens the case for a more targeted approach under which the affected area and its neighboring district would be cordoned off, health officials said.
"To manage coronavirus, we are working on a cluster containment strategy," said Health Ministry joint secretary Lav Agarwal, leading the effort to tackle the outbreak.
He said such measures were already in place in east Delhi, in Agra, site of the famed Taj Mahal monument, and in the textile town of Bhilwara in the western state of Rajasthan which has become a test case for a more targeted fight against COVID-19.
Under the "Bhilwara model," which was adopted last month soon after about 30 people tested positive in the first big wave of infections, the town and its surrounding villages were sealed off with a virtual curfew in place.
People were not allowed even to step out of their homes to get essential stocks or medicines, instead they were asked to call helpline numbers for delivery of staples to their homes.
"It is a lockdown, within a lockdown," said district information officer Gouri Kant.
The government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, said 15 districts which had each recorded six or more cases of COVID-19 would be cordoned off beginning Wednesday night as it steps up the fight to stem the infections.
"There will be no movement in these areas and government will ensure the supply of essentials," additional chief secretary Awanish Awasthy said.
The Delhi state government said late on Wednesday it was making it compulsory for people to wear masks if they step out of their homes, and 20 areas in the city would be cordoned off.
So far, India has registered 5,274 COVID-19 infections of whom 149 have died, government data showed on Wednesday.
The small numbers, in comparison to large countries such as the United States, Italy and China, have prompted questions from Modi's critics about whether India has gone too far in shutting down its economy, throwing millions of those who depend on pay by the day out of work and onto the brink of poverty.
However, health experts say India needs to ramp up testing for infections to help ensure it has a grasp on how widespread the coronavirus is, and that a lockdown alone is no solution.
India's Supreme Court said on Wednesday COVID-19 tests should be conducted free at all government and private laboratories. So far, only government labs were conducting free tests, while the private labs had been allowed to charge a fixed rate of 4,500 Indian rupees.
"The private hospitals including laboratories have an important role to play … by extending philanthropic services in the hour of national crisis," the court said, ruling on a public interest litigation.
It was not immediately clear how and if the government would reimburse private sector's costs.
A senior government official, aware of internal discussions on the lockdown, said parts of the country that had not reported a single case of the coronavirus and where people were not in quarantine could lift the curbs.
"There are proposals that are on the table, if there is a partial lifting it will be done on the basis of safety assessment," the official said.
But it was unlikely that schools, colleges, rail travel and religious gatherings would be allowed anywhere in the country, the official said. Following are government figures on the spread of the coronavirus in South Asia:
* India has 5,274 cases, including 149 deaths
* Pakistan has 4,072 cases, including 58 deaths
* Afghanistan has 444 cases, including 14 deaths
* Sri Lanka has 189 cases, including 7 deaths
* Bangladesh has 218 cases, including 20 deaths
* Maldives has 19 cases and no deaths
* Nepal has nine cases and no deaths
* Bhutan has five cases and no deaths