Coronavirus outbreak forces a virtual lockdown in India till March 31
India has clamped a virtual lockdown for the rest of the month across states by suspending trains, interstate buses and Metro rail services, a decision that on Sunday followed millions of Indians heeding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a day-long voluntary shutdown to break the chain of coronavirus infections.Updated: Mar 23, 2020 07:35 IST
Delhi declared a complete lockdown on Sunday to prevent the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) from taking hold, adding to the central government’s extraordinary new measures that effectively confined about a fifth of all Indians to their homes by suspending trains, buses, Metro rail services and private taxis in unheard-of actions necessitated by the outbreak that has killed at least 13,000 worldwide.
In Delhi, from 6am on March 23, public transport services — Metro, private buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, 75% of DTC buses — shops, markets, religious places, privates offices, commercial establishments and factories are not being allowed to function. All borders of the Capital have been sealed; only essential workers and vehicles will be allowed to move about. The ban will remain in place till March 31.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” said chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as he spoke at a news briefing along with Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal. The Delhi government previously closed all educational institutions, restaurants, malls, weekly markets, cinema halls, gyms, nightclubs and spas.
While Kejriwal said all domestic flight in and out of the Capital were also being grounded, the Centre appeared to overrule his decision, with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announcing that flights operations will continue. It was unclear, however, how travellers will commute to and from the airport in the face of the lockdown.
The Delhi Police imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure till March 31, banning gatherings and other public activities. The law bans the assembly of four or more people in one place.
The drastic measures in the Capital, welcomed by experts who have been calling for a pre-emptive lockdown to keep the disease at bay, followed sweeping lockdown announcements by the Centre earlier in the day.
India clamped a virtual lockdown for the rest of the month across states by suspending trains, interstate buses and Metro rail services, a decision that on Sunday followed millions of Indians heeding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a day-long voluntary shutdown to break the chain of coronavirus infections.
The Indian Railways announced the unprecedented suspension of all its 13,523 passenger services, including suburban operations, from March 22 midnight to March 31; only goods trains will run during this period. The Centre also ordered a complete lockdown in 82 districtswhere cases of Covid-19 have been reported, leaving only essential services open. All districts of Delhi, and Noida, Gurugram and Ghaziabad are among the districts being locked down.
Other districts being locked down were in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Chandigargh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karantaka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, and the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh and Pondicherry.
Many states, including Maharashtra, Kerala, Haryana, UP, Uttarakhand and West Bengal, announced partial or complete lockdown for varying periods. Nagaland said it was imposing an indefinite lockdown from midnight Sunday.
A high-level meeting involving the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, cabinet secretary and all state chief secretaries, ordered the suspension of transport till March 31.
India reported three more Covid-19 deaths on Sunday, including the first casualties from Bihar and Gujarat, taking the toll to seven and the number of confirmed cases to 360, up from 315 a day earlier, officials said.
For the first time in 46 years, the sprawling Indian Railways network, including Mumbai’s iconic local trains that ferry about 8.5 million people every day, will shut down completely. In 1974, socialist leader and later Union minister George Fernandes spearheaded a 20-day-long all-India strike that crippled the rail network. Since the strike, nothing has been able to entirely halt the railways’ passenger network.
Most trains remained cancelled, several domestic flights grounded, and shops shut for the 14-hour “janta curfew”, a one-day voluntary shutdown that many saw as a test of India’s ability to contain the pandemic, which has killed at least 13,000 people globally.
Otherwise bustling streets and public places in the national capital Delhi and financial hub Mumbai wore a deserted look as Sunday’s shutdown began at 7am. The day-long calm was broken only once – with a clangour across neighbourhoods at 5pm when, on the PM’s appeal, millions clapped and rang utensils amid sounding of sirens to mark their gratitude to the essential workers still on the ground during the outbreak. Prime Minister Modi later thanked the people for expressing their solidarity.
According to the Union health ministry, Maharashtra has reported the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases at 63, followed by Kerala (52) and Delhi (27). Uttar Pradesh has recorded 25 cases, Telangana 21 cases, Rajasthan 24 cases and Haryana 17 cases.
While the government has taken measures to shut down non-essential operations over the past week, experts believe it still needs to massively ramp up testing to stave off a worsening of the public health crisis.
Guidelines for testing at private labs have been notified by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) but it wasn’t immediately clear when the process could begin across the country. “Sixty private labs have registered so far to conduct tests. Many of them are being approved as we speak,” said ICMR director general Balram Bhargava.
Following the high-level meeting on Sunday, a government statement said: “In view of the need to contain the spread of Covid-19, it was agreed that there is urgent need to extend the restrictions on the movement of non-essential passenger transport including interstate transport buses till March 31.”
To be sure, it wasn’t immediately clarified whether the ban on interstate passenger transport would also include flights. At present, airlines are cutting down on flight operations due to low passenger load. GoAir on Saturday announced the suspension of all flights on Sunday in the wake of “janta curfew”. Indigo also announced that the airline will be operating only about 60% of its normal domestic schedule.
The Centre said all chief secretaries informed top officials that there was “overwhelming and spontaneous response to the call for “janta curfew” made by the Prime Minister.
While the lockdown was not mandatory, PM Modi urged the population of 1.3 billion to help prepare for the challenges ahead. “Let us all be a part of this curfew, which will add tremendous strength to the fight against COVID-19 menace,” Modi tweeted. “Stay indoors and stay healthy.”
Health ministry joint secretary Lav Aggarwal said the government was seeking “unity in isolation”.
“There may be little inconvenience to public because of the measures that are being taken but people must understand these are important steps needed to break the disease transmission cycle. Social distancing is the key and whatever steps are required to implement that will be taken. The states have been directed to take measures at the highest level,” he said.
The Delhi chief minister said that essential services, including the hospitals, police, pharmacies grocery stories, news outlets, ration supply, internet, will continue to function ceaselessly.
“Unless it’s very important, do not step out of the house,” he said. If a person gives a valid reason that he is out for essential work or to get supplies, he will be believed, Kejriwal said. He added that all private firms being shut will have to pay their employees the full month’s salary.
The measures were widely appreciated, but experts said a lack of testing could be masking the true scale of the health crisis in the country.
Experts said that a sudden and sharp spike in cases could hinder efforts to prevent the outbreak from taking hold if more aggressive and random testing is not carried out across India. Some even believe that community transmission has already begun silently and that it can be tackled only if many more people are tested at random.
South Korea, which has been able to slow the advance of the disease despite reporting about 9,000 cases, has tested about 280,000 people since February. Though the US has tested 90,000 people, Covid-19 cases have raced to alarming levels in the country, leading to widespread criticism of its authorities for intractable delays in making tests available.
“Asking people to remain indoors is the key to break the transmission cycle in a country like ours with a huge population size. If people don’t go out then chances of person-to-person transmission will automatically reduce. There has to be judicious use of testing,” said Dr Ekta Gupta, senior virologist with a Delhi government hospital.