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1.3 Billion People; 21 Days; One Lockdown: India’s fight against COVID-19

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On March 24th, 20:00 IST (Indian Standard Time), Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, announced a 21-day complete lockdown of the entire country, effective in four hours at 00:00 March 25th. This announcement had been anticipated after India tested a practice lockdown, “Janta Curfew” (people’s curfew) last Sunday, March 22nd following which many states in the country implemented a partial lockdown. Yet, the news has come as a shock to many Indians with thousands of panicked people rushing to the stores after hearing Modi’s announcement. Despite Modi’s assurances that the Centre and State governments are working to ensure  essential services – water, electricity, groceries, healthcare services – would be operational. Modi’s speech highlighted the importance of the coming 21 days and emphasized on the absolute necessity of staying at home and practicing social distance. However, with India’s high population density, low literacy rate and an economic slowdown, such an unprecedented move will surely pose a lot of challenges both for the government and the people.

At the moment, India has reported 650+ confirmed cases and 15 deaths from the virus. However, many fear that the number is much higher in reality. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed that carrying out more tests is one of the most basic ways to understand and tackle the crisis at hand. Until now, India has only tested about 25,000 people with a current capacity to carry out upto 70,000 tests per week. The Indian Council of Medical Research estimates a need for 1 million test kits. To combat such low testing capacities, India is introducing an antibody test (serological test) to confirm coronavirus and is quickly giving approval to private companies to carry out these tests. According to the renowned expert, Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, India could see 300-500 million cases by July end with a potential chilling death toll of 1-2 million lives. Such numbers will put immense strain on the healthcare system and, coupled with India’s high-population and low-resource infrastructure, could lead to an eventual collapse. With such grim predictions, India has no choice but to wholly embrace this lockdown.

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A “hard” lockdown where every person must stay at home for three full weeks requires detailed planning, coordination and strict self-discipline. There are currently at least 300 million people living below the poverty line in India, a majority of whom are daily-wage earners. In his speech, Modi acknowledged the hardship the poor people will especially have to endure and assured the people of the measures the government is taking to mitigate the emergency. For a country like India with rampant poverty and hunger, some of the biggest challenges will be providing food for the poor and enforcing hygiene and sanitation practices. On 24th March, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced fiscal packages to help the economy and allocated 2 billion dollars to boost the health sector. On March 26th, a 22.6 billion dollar economic stimulus plan was announced focusing on food security targeting 800 million poor people. The welfare package includes 5kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of pulses for each person free of cost for the next three months. Free cooking gas cylinders will also be provided to 83 million poor families. The primary aim of the Indian government is, according to Sitharaman, “We do not want anyone to remain hungry”. On 27th March, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced relief measures to address the stress on the financial systems.

At a time like this, it is becoming harder everyday to just see COVID-19 as a numbers battle. Globally, the number of positively tested people has crossed 550,000 with more than 25,000 deaths. The WHO has backed India’s aggressive action against this disease. The next three weeks will be crucial for India’s fight against the deadly virus. India already has some experience dealing with severe health threats. In the past, India has overcome one of the world’s worst cases of the smallpox epidemic and is officially polio free as of 2014. In the case of COVID-19, India will encounter many challenges and require strong cooperation from the people. One of the challenges this lockdown is already facing is the mass exodus of people as thousands of distressed daily wage migrant workers attempt to travel from big cities and return home to small towns and villages. The coming few weeks will be crucial to India’s war against COVID-19; as Modi said in his speech, “If we are not able to manage this pandemic in the next 21 days, the country and your family will be set back by 21 years. If we are not able to manage the next 21 days, then many families will be destroyed forever.”

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