New Delhi: In a renewed, more rigorous attempt to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, India announced a complete, nation-wide lockdown for 21 days starting Tuesday midnight.
The announcement of the lockdown — from March 25 to April 15 — was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an address to the nation at 8 pm on Tuesday, a day when the number of coronavirus cases rose to 519, including 10 deaths reported so far.
Urging people to stay at home for 21 days, the Prime Minister said, "From midnight, there will be a total lockdown in the entire country… To save India, to save its every citizen, you, your family... every street, every neighbourhood is being put under lockdown. It is like a curfew, tougher than the Janata Curfew… Forget about leaving home in the next 21 days... If you cross the Lakshman Rekha, you will invite the virus home."
The 21-day lockdown, the Prime Minister said, is important to break the chain of transmission.
While Mr Modi said there is "absolutely no need to panic", and the Centre and states are working to ensure that essential supplies are not disrupted, the announcement led to panic buying of items as people thronged market places to stock up on food, milk and medicines.
"It is time for test and patience," the PM said while asserting that social distancing is the only way out for the country in its battle against coronavirus.
"21 days' lockdown may seem to be a long time, but this is the only way to ensure everyone is safe. If we don't handle these 21 days well, then our country, your family will go backwards by 21 years," PM Modi said in his second address to the nation in a week, while folding his hands several times during his half-hour long speech in which he used the word "corona" 22 times, "people" 15 times, "India" 13 times, "stay home" 12 times and "infection" and "family" 11 times each.
PM Modi also announced a Rs 15,000 crore corpus to develop health care facilities and infrastructure.
Making a strong appeal "with folded hands" to 1.3 billion people not to venture out of their homes in the next three weeks, Mr Modi repeatedly underlined the massive danger that Covid-19 poses and said that the lockdown is applicable to everyone -- from the PM to a citizen in a village.
Though the PM said essential items will be made available, and urged people not to rush to markets and stay indoors as, "by converging around shops you are risking the spread of Covid-19," a lot of questions remained unanswered. With the country virtually coming to a standstill, there was no clarity on where will supplies come from and at what time shops will open.
"Lockdown is being imposed in every state, Union Territory, district, village, mohalla and street," PM said amid rising number of Covid-19 cases. As per the latest briefing by the health ministry, the total number of active cases in India are 470, while 40 people have been cured, discharged or migrated. The figure includes 43 foreign nationals and 10 deaths reported so far.
Mr Modi said the experience of countries which have been able to contain the virus to some extent and experts' views have made it clear that social distancing caused by a lockdown is the only way to break the cycle of the infection.
"This is the only ray of light. To save India, to save every Indian, there will be a complete ban on people from stepping outside their houses from 12 midnight today," PM asserted.
Union home ministry issued a note saying ration and grocery shops, medical stores, milk booths will remain open and fruits and vegetables will continue to sell, though the government urged people to buy things online or opt for home delivery instead of stepping out. It was not clear if shops will be open all day or for a few hours. Shops and markets are already running out of supplies and shopkeepers say that there is nothing at the backend to replenish them.
Meanwhile, MHA clarified that banks, ATMs, insurance offices will remain open. Telecom and Internet services will continue, petrol pumps will remain open and private security services will function.
Hospitals, sanitation staff, water and electricity and those linked to essential services will continue to function.
Media, police, defence, medical services have been kept out of the purview of the lockdown.
Hotels and resorts have to shut down but hostels and paying guest accommodations will remain functional.
All air, road and rail services have been shut down too to check movement of people. All religious and social events banned but funerals with 20 people allowed. District magistrates have been given special power to control the situation.
Refusal to comply by directions given by the Centre or the respective state can invite punishment which includes jail term of up to one year or a fine or both. If non-compliance leads to loss of life or danger, it shall invite punishment of jail term of two years.
The spectre of a long, nation-wide lockdown had been looming since the "Janata Curfew" on Sunday when several cases of large crowds defying orders were reported.
The 21-day lockdown, the PM said, will have an economic cost, but saving people's lives is of paramount importance.
"Even countries like Italy, France and the US with world class infrastructure have been left helpless due to the spread of the disease despite their relentless efforts," he said while emphasising the gravity of the situation. "Some people suffer from this wrong mindset that only infected persons need to follow social distancing," he said, while warning that such a view can endanger lives of others and their families.
"The one-day Janata Curfew showed how we Indians come together and fight against any trouble which comes before the country and the mankind," the PM said.
Referring to a World Health Organisation report, Mr Modi pointed out that Covid-19 took 67 days to spread to one lakh people. To reach two lakh people, it took 11 days. But it took only four days to reach another lakh, reiterating that once it begins to spread, it’s almost impossible to control the novel coronavirus.