NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on the country to participate in a “citizen-led” curfew Sunday and urged senior citizens to stay indoors over the next few weeks to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In an address to the nation, the Indian leader called for restraint and resolve to fight the outbreak as India’s toll of cases keeps rising steadily.
India has reported 173 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four deaths due to the respiratory disease — far lower than many countries. But public health experts fear this does not reflect the extent of its spread due to extremely limited testing done so far. They warn that the country could face an exponential spike in numbers.
Asking that all people stay in their homes Sunday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Modi called it a curfew “for the people and by the people.”
“These are testing times, but we all have to maintain discipline to prevent spread of the virus,” he said.
Commentators called it a “trial-run” to prepare the world’s second most populous nation for what may lie ahead if the situation worsens and an effort to reinforce the message of social distancing that public health experts say is key to containing the coronavirus outbreak.
Warning about the economic toll the outbreak would take on the Indian economy that already is under strain, Modi also appealed to businesses to ensure that staff facing temporary layoffs do not suffer pay cuts.
A government advisory also has asked children under the age of 10 and citizens above 65 to stay at home.
India’s bustling and overcrowded cities, home to millions, already have turned quiet in recent days. Most companies are asking people to work from home, and malls and restaurants have been ordered shut in most places.
It is now easy to cruise along roads that a week ago were packed with cars. Even some popular temples, where huge crowds gather daily, have asked worshippers to stay away. Nearly 150 trains have been canceled.
Some states, such as Rajasthan, are applying colonial era laws that forbid more than four people from gathering in one place — a law usually used to quell protests and riots.
The financial hub of Mumbai Thursday expanded its partial shutdown of offices to government buildings, ordering half the staff to work from home. Mumbai lies in the hardest-hit state of Maharashtra.
India also announced it would suspend for one week all international flights beginning March 22, to help contain the spread of coronavirus. It already suspended visas for most foreigners.
For India, the challenge is to prevent the outbreak from turning into a community transmission — and so far, health experts say the coronavirus cases are restricted to those who have traveled overseas or people who have come in contact with them.