Coronavirus: India’s vast population goes into lockdown

Warning of going ‘backwards by 21 years’ if mismanaged as 1.3 billion start to self-isolate

More than 1.3 billion Indians began confining themselves to their homes on Wednesday in the world’s largest-ever lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Television news channels portrayed deserted streets, shuttered markets, and isolated railway and bus stations across the country as people heeded prime minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide lockdown ordered on Tuesday evening. It is to last until at least April 14th.

Although India's official tally of 606 coronavirus cases and 10 deaths appears minuscule compared with those of China, Italy, Spain and the US, health experts have warned the world's second most populous country faces a potential "tsunami" of infections if timely and adequate steps are not implemented.

Mr Modi said he had imposed a countrywide lockdown to "save India and Indians". In his 30-minute address he also warned people that if India did not "handle these 21 days well, it would go backwards by 21 years".

In a video conference on television on Wednesday, Mr Modi said the epic Mahabharat battle in Indian mythology was won in 18 days; that against corona virus, he added, would take 21 days.

Police barricades

The prime minister had said the lockdown would be “total”, but after his announcement officials released advisories explaining that medical, law enforcement and media personnel, and others associated with maintaining essential services, would be exempt from it.

Shops selling food and essentials such as medicines, fresh vegetables and fruit are to remain open.

Despite this, tens of thousands braved police barricades, potential fines and other penalties across the country to acquire food and other critical supplies. There was also panic when online retailers such as Amazon, Flipkart and Big Basket, an Indian grocery home delivery service, began cancelling previously placed orders, saying they had no delivery spots available.

As a consequence, social distancing was rare as crowds jostled one another to get fast-disappearing supplies, with the elderly and infirm coming away empty-handed.

"I was unable to get either milk, bread nor any other essential foodstuff as the crowd was too large and aggressive," said Shakuntla Devi, a 65-year-old housewife from Madangir, a middle-class neighbourhood in New Delhi. "I'm now concerned how I will be able to survive for the next three weeks of the lockdown," she said.

Religious gatherings

Others defied the lockdown not to buy food but to pray, as Wednesday was the start of the Hindu new year and the beginning of a nine-day observance in which Hindus perform various rituals and prayers at temples daily.

And though the lockdown bans religious gathering and requires places of worship to close, ritual and faith appear to be overriding all fear of the virus in many places.

Members of Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Yodi Adityanath, chief minister of India's most populous Uttar Pradesh in the north, also defied the lockdown order and attended temple ceremonies.

Meanwhile, medical and airline personnel in Delhi claimed they faced discrimination from their landlords, who feared their tenants could transmit the virus.

Many, especially airline staff who were involved in evacuating Indians from Italy, Iran and Japan, said they had been asked to vacate their premises, prompting the federal health ministry to ask the local authorities to take action against their landlords.