Coronavirus: How do you lock down India’s 1.3 billion people?

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has locked down the country for the next 21 days after invoking the National Disaster Management Act.

In his address to the nation, he said: “To save India there will be a total ban on venturing outside of your homes.

As per the health experts, a minimum of 21 days is most crucial to break the cycle of infection. If we don’t take care in these 21 days, then the country and your family will go back 21 years.”

Only those involved with essential services are allowed to go out of their homes for work.

Everyone else needs to stay indoors and only venture out to buy essentials like food, milk and medicines.

A lockdown was expected, but not for such a long duration.

After his address there was a spike in panic buying across cities. Long lines at grocery stores and chemist shops were seen late into the night.

There were reports of police using batons to force people not to congregate at shops, and they even closed some of them.

How will the lockdown work for such a large population?

It has been a combination of punishment, legal threat, scaring and cajoling.

The prime minister was firm in his speech, but compassionate.

“You must remember that a single step outside your home can bring a dangerous pandemic like corona inside,” he said.

Some state governments have warned those violating the restrictions would be jailed for a year and their vehicles confiscated.

The chief minister of the southern state of Telangana, K.Chandrashekhar Rao, told the press: “If people will not listen to the police, I will ask for army deployment and shoot-at-sight orders will be issued.”

In Delhi, the national capital, there are police check posts across the metropolis.

The borders have been sealed and every arterial road has police barricades checking identity cards of people.

Those not in essential services who are caught are reprimanded – or worse – their vehicles seized.

Constable Vinod Kumar said that “largely people have adhered to the restrictions, adding: “We believe most whom we think have a genuine problem to be out on the streets, there are a few who lie and we do catch them.”

Fears for the poor – less than 1% GDP spent on health

India comprises 36 states and union territories. Its structure allows state governments to control their own law and order and health, among other administrative departments.

A number of states had already imposed a lockdown even before the prime minister’s announcement.

By Tuesday morning 32 states and union territories were in a complete lockdown, while the remaining had partial restrictions.

On Monday, Delhi sealed its borders to outsiders. A curfew pass was needed by those from other states to enter the capital.

Last week, the state of Rajasthan issued prohibitory orders that not more than four people were allowed to congregate anywhere. On Sunday it locked and sealed the state with further stringent restrictions.

Likewise, the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Kashmir and others had almost completely locked down.

International flights were shut last week, while domestic air travel stopped after midnight yesterday.

The country’s largest transporter, the Indian Railways, stopped running trains while the metro train services in cities have also closed.

Interstate bus travel has also ended.

The prime minister has appealed for people to stay put where ever they are and not to travel.

There’s growing alarm that the disease will spread into the poorest communities where public health sectors, starved of resources, would struggle to cope.

India spends less than then one percent of its GDP on health.

Almost 70% of the population relies on private hospitals, clinics and doctors – which is a drain on the poor.

Successive governments have vastly ignored health.

A pandemic in the country would have a detrimental effect on the prevailing health infrastructure and its doctors and nurses.

Health activists have criticised the government for not testing enough. Just over 20,000 tests for COVID-19 have taken place. That is about three in every million.

South Korea tests 4,000 people per million and has the capacity to test 20,000 per day.

Health experts warn that more than a million people in India could be infected with the coronavirus by mid-May.

The worst to have been affected are poor, daily wage earners and economically weaker sections.

With the lockdown, these millions of workers now have no where to go. The central government has been criticised for not having planned enough for this section of society.

Some state governments are now providing free meals and shelters for the homeless.

The Delhi government has announced free meals for everyone at all its shelters.

The west Bengal government has said it will provide free food grains to approximately 75 million of its people for the next six months.

India’s economy was slowing even before the pandemic and the last few days have been a bloodbath on the national stock exchange with almost every sector in the red.

The uncertainty has alarmed everyone and no one really knows how long this will last.

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