India’s move to lockdown much of the world’s second-most populous country may not be enough to soften the impact of the
outbreak as thousands thronged key train stations before services closed to head to their villages, risking carrying the infection to the nation’s vast hinterland.
All districts of the national capital
will be locked down, while the government of the state of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial hub Mumbai, asked all non-essential businesses to close through March 31, essentially shutting down India’s main centers of government and finance.
and the stock exchanges will stay open. Authorities also canceled all but a bare minimum of transport services and sealed as many as 75 districts in 22 states, hours into a self-imposed curfew on Sunday called by Prime Minister
While growth in cases in India has so far been slow — reaching 396 with seven deaths — by April 15 the country will be overwhelmed by infections, said Dr. T. Jacob John, the former head of the
’s Centre for
in Virology, warning India’s epidemic could grow to be worse than in Italy or Iran. Italy’s cases reached 53,578, with 793 deaths on Saturday alone, raising the total to 4,825 fatalities as hospitals overflow and health-care workers die.
“The decision to bring life at a standstill is a good decision, but I’m not sure we have bought time for our people,” John said by phone on Sunday. “We are still two steps behind the virus — ideally, this step should have been taken a week ago, that way we could’ve stopped the outbreak’s inward journey into heartland India.”
John estimates the virus could spread to as much as 10% of India’s 1.3 billion population and of those, 8 million adults could be at risk of serious illness. “The figures could be higher, unless with today’s nationwide curfew, we actually manage to break the chain of infection.”
The lockdown risks worsening an economy that’s already set to grow at the slowest pace in 11 years. India’s rupee weakened to an all-time low last week and stocks slumped anew amid a global meltdown in risk assets.
have pulled a combined $10 billion from Indian shares and debt so far this month — the biggest withdrawal since the U.S. taper tantrum of 2013. While the
is injecting both dollar and rupee liquidity to ensure markets don’t freeze up, any increase in risk aversion would make it harder for Indian companies to repay or refinance a record 5.9 trillion rupees of local notes maturing this year.
Streets across India’s cities were deserted as citizens stayed indoors heeding Modi’s call for a 14-hour voluntary curfew on Sunday, part of the administration’s effort to curb the spread of the virus across the the nation.
The Ministry of Health and
expanded the criteria of people who can be tested to include all patients with pneumonia symptoms or severe respiratory illnesses. Earlier, the bulk of India’s testing was aimed at individuals who have traveled internationally and their contacts.
“Our biggest challenge is how do we break this chain of transmission,” said Lav Agarwal, a senior health ministry official said in a briefing in New Delhi on Sunday, noting there had been a “a big increase in cases recently.” States have been asked to ramp up their capacity to manage confirmed cases and build or earmark dedicated coronavirus hospitals, he said.
On Saturday, the Indian Council for Medical Research issued guidelines for private labs to test for Covid-19. The ICMR also set a price cap of 4,500 rupees ($60) for the test.
Most at risk from the country-wide shutdown are India’s informal workers, who comprise more than 80% of the workforce and are often denied job security and medical benefits. Mumbai alone has more than 8 million migrants from other areas of the country, according to the 2011 census, and an enforced lockdown risks robbing them of weeks of pay.
–With assistance from Anurag Kotoky.
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