India extends world’s biggest virus lockdown

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NEW DELHI, April 14, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – India’s nationwide
coronavirus lockdown, the biggest in the world covering 1.3 billion
people, will be extended until May 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi
said Tuesday.

The move comes despite complaints from millions of poor, a vast
underclass who have been left almost completely without support as
jobs have vanished and incomes dried up.

“From the economic angle, we have paid a big price,” Modi said. “But
the lives of the people of India are far more valuable.”

“From the experiences of the last few days it is clear that the path
we have chosen is correct.”

India’s three-week-old lockdown, in force since March 25, was
scheduled to end at midnight Tuesday.

Modi said there would be “limited relaxations” from April 20 for
districts with no cases, and new guidelines for industry and
agriculture would be released Wednesday.

The announcement comes as debate rages around the world on how to
lift restrictions so the economic carnage of the pandemic can be eased
without a new spike in infections.

Official figures suggest South Asian nations have so far been
relatively unscathed by the epidemic, with around 10,800 cases and 353
deaths in India.

Some experts say not enough tests have been conducted and the
true number of infections is much higher.

And with some of the most crowded cities on the planet, there are
fears that numbers could take off and overwhelm the shaky healthcare
system.

Several states including Maharashtra — home to Mumbai and with
the highest number of cases — Tamil Nadu and Odisha already announced
lockdown extensions.

The World Health Organisation Tuesday praised India’s decision to
extend the lockdown, saying “it would go a long way in arresting the
virus spread”.

– India’s poor –

The shutdown, with strict limits on activity, has been
devastating for the economy — and in particular for India’s poor.

Millions of daily wage labourers suddenly lost their jobs, forcing
hundreds of thousands to travel hundreds of kilometres (miles) back to
their home villages, often on foot.

Some died on the way, while others were shunned by locals when they
made it back. One clip that went viral on social media showed a group
of migrants being hosed down with chemicals by local officials.

Others have been stranded in cities in cramped, unsanitary conditions
where the virus could spread quickly. New Delhi alone is providing
hundreds of thousands of free meals.

In the financial capital Mumbai, some 800 migrant labourers gathered
near a railway station on Tuesday and demanded to be allowed to return
home. The protest was later dispersed by police.

– Snarl-ups –

Farmers have complained of a lack of workers to harvest crops
while snarl-ups of thousands of trucks not allowed to move because of
the lockdown have hampered food transport.

“We have tried to keep the interests of the poor and the daily wage
workers in mind while making these new guidelines,” Modi said in his
24-minute address.

“The central and state governments are working together to ensure that
the farmers don’t face any problems.”

Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das has called the
coronavirus an “invisible assassin” that could wreak havoc on the
economy.

A restaurant industry group, a sector that employs millions of people
nationwide, warned Monday there could be “social unrest” if it did not
receive financial relief.

The commerce ministry has also reportedly urged the government to
consider opening more activities “with reasonable safeguards” even if
the lockdown is extended.

On the deserted streets of Delhi, Manoj, a businessman, said the
extended lockdown would further devastate the economy.

“People are going to lose jobs, businesses are going to shut
down, unemployment is going to rise and hungry people are going to
die,” he told AFP.

Even before the pandemic, the Indian economy was stuttering, with
the highest unemployment for decades.

Growth had slowed to about 5.0 percent before the pandemic and
some analysts say it could slump to 1.5-2.0 percent this year — way
below the level needed to provide jobs for the millions coming into
the labour market each month.