India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended a nationwide lockdown until 3 May to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The announcement comes on what was to be the last day of the initial lockdown, which began on 25 March.
“I salute all you citizens,” Mr Modi said in a televised address, thanking Indians for their support in the fight against the virus.
India has reported 8,988 active cases and 339 deaths so far.
Under the lockdown, only essential businesses – such as groceries and pharmacies – are allowed to remain open. City transport services are limited to emergency staff and those with special travel passes. All trains and flights have been suspended.
Mr Modi suggested that the rules could tighten further over the next week, but he did not give more details. He said the government will issue “guidelines” soon.
“These have been made thinking of our poor and migrant workers, daily-wage workers and farmers,” he said.
He added that the federal and state governments will be watching potential hotspots closely, and will evaluate every district in a week’s time to determine if restrictions can be eased anywhere.
The heavy economic and social cost of India’s lockdown
India’s grinding lockdown has already caused economic disruption and social distress.
It has hurt the economy immensely. Joblessness has risen sharply, according to an independent assessment. India’s already sputtering economy is now expected to grow between 1.5-2.8% in 2020-21, according to the World Bank. Migrant workers, the backbone of key service industries, have either fled their shuttered workplaces or are stranded in homeless centres in cities. The thriving informal economy is in tatters.
Access to food, medicines and emergency medical care for non-Covid-19 patients has become difficult for the poor. The lockdown, says an economist, “seems to be the case of the privileged transferring their epidemic risk to the under-privileged”.
There is no doubt that lifting the lockdown at a time when India is seeing a rise in infections and trying to catch up on testing, can be risky.
At the same time, it is also abundantly clear that India will have to ease the lockdown to save the economy and livelihoods of people.
Some economic activity – farming, transportation of goods, wholesale markets, key gig economy services – has to reopen with social distancing and hygiene protocols.
How this will be implemented will depend purely on the acumen of the states.
Seven states and one federally-administered territory have already extended the lockdown.
The decision has come at a huge economic cost, with unemployment on the rise and businesses struggling to function amid the restrictions.
Experts also fear that it may affect farming, which employs more than half of India’s workforce.
The restrictions have already had a devastating effect on India’s poor and homeless, and ended up stranding hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across cities.
Experts around the world are closely watching the virus’ spread in India, which has a population of 1.3bn. They fear that the country – with its densely-populated cities and weak public health system – is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s worst effects.
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