NEW DELHI - India extended a nationwide lockdown until May 3rd as the number of coronavirus cases in the country continued to surge but held out the possibility of easing restrictions in some places next week to help millions of daily wage workers.
In a televised address to the nation on what was to be the last day of a three-week lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on people to stay at home for another 19 days.
“India’s early action prevented the situation from worsening. The path we have chosen is the right one,” Modi said on Tuesday. “It is my request and prayer to all fellow citizens, that we must not let coronavirus spread to new areas at any cost.”
India’s lockdown of 1.3 billion people, the world’s largest and one of the most stringent, began when the number of infections was 550. They have now topped 10,000 and 339 people have died.
Health officials point out that these numbers would have been much higher if the country had not shutdown virtually all activities. Worryingly however the virus is now spreading through densely packed low income areas and slums and surfacing in new areas of the country. The country’s two biggest cities, Mumbai and Delhi remain hotspots.
The prime minister acknowledged that the country is paying a heavy price for the shutdown that has brought the economy to a standstill. “It undoubtedly looks costly right now, but measured against the lives of Indian citizens, there is no comparison.”
Health experts welcomed the lockdown’s extension. “This is absolutely the right step. It fits the bill and it will help flatten the curve,” virologist T. Jacob John told VOA.
Doctors have warned that a huge spike in cases will overwhelm the country’s woefully inadequate health infrastructure.
“We can build our defenses during the lockdown period counting every gun, every bullet that we need,” said John referring to respirators, testing kits, and protective care equipment for doctors that India is acutely short of at the moment. “You will get breathing time without worrying about an exponential increase.”
The lockdown was extended as India, like many parts of the world, grapples with the challenge of walking the fine line between saving lives and livelihoods. Calls have begun to grow from industry groups and some states for finding ways to restart the economy, especially in areas unaffected by the pandemic.
Modi held out the hope of limited relaxation of the tight restrictions in some places for “certain services” after April 20th. These will likely be areas from where no coronavirus cases have been reported but more detailed guidelines on the government’s plans are expected on Wednesday.
Modi said this is being done keeping in mind daily wage workers who have been hit hardest by the sudden disruption of the economy. “One of my top-most priorities is to reduce the difficulties in their lives.”
The shutdown has caused massive job losses in a country where more than 90 per cent of the workforce is employed in the informal sector.
Millions of these workers, who have few savings and depend on their daily earnings are in dire straits – many have run out of money to sustain their families, others have been stranded far away from their homes. Days ago, angry migrant workers went on a rampage in Gujarat state complaining about food and asking for permission to travel back to their villages.
“Even if the lockdown continues ways must be found to make it more porous for India’s economic motor to start,” the Times of India newspaper said in an editorial on Monday, a day before the prime minister’s address.
Meanwhile, as India tries to persuade people to wear masks as a protective measure against the infection, the Prime Minister changed his profile photo on his personal Twitter page soon after his address – it now shows him wearing a homemade mask.
Several states in the country have made it mandatory to wear masks in public places and virologists say their use could help enormously in small houses and slums where maintaining social distancing norms is impossible.