In In­dia, 1.3 bil­lion start a three-week lock­down

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOANNA SLATER AND NIHA MASIH

new delhi — No flights. No trains. Only es­sen­tial ser­vices open. More than 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple urged to stay in their homes.

In­dia, the world’s sec­ond­most-pop­u­lous coun­try, is mak­ing a dra­matic, last-ditch ef­fort to pre­vent an ex­plo­sion of coro­n­avirus cases in a coun­try ille­quipped to han­dle such an out­break.

For the next 21 days, there will be re­stric­tions on com­merce and move­ment across the length and breadth of In­dia. Even at the height of its bat­tle against the virus, China did not im­pose a na­tion­wide lock­down.

On Tuesday, In­dia had about 500 con­firmed coro­n­avirus cases, but the num­ber is grow­ing rapidly. Test­ing re­mains lim­ited, and there are signs that the virus could be spread­ing un­de­tected.

In a speech Tuesday night, In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi made clear that the coun­try was at a cru­cial junc­ture. “If we don’t man­age these 21 days, the coun­try will be set back by 21 years,” he said.

His emo­tional ap­peal to cit­i­zens not to step out of their homes did not in­clude specifics about how they would meet ba­sic needs. That im­me­di­ately pro­voked fran­tic buy­ing at gro­cery

stores, which re­main open as es­sen­tial ser­vices.

Less than an hour af­ter his speech, Modi wrote in a tweet that there was no need for panic and that au­thor­i­ties would en­sure ac­cess to food and medicine.

In his speech, Modi also ac­knowl­edged that the mea­sures — an ex­ten­sion of steps al­ready an­nounced by various states — will ex­act a cost. “We will have to pay a heavy eco­nomic price for this, but lives are more im­por­tant,” he said.

Large, densely pop­u­lated coun­tries such as In­dia will de­ter­mine “the fu­ture of this pan­demic,” Michael Ryan, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s health emer­gen­cies pro­gram, said Tuesday. It is “ex­cep­tion­ally im­por­tant” that In­dia take ag­gres­sive steps to con­tain the spread of the virus, he said.

On Sun­day, In­dia shut down the back­bone of this sprawl­ing na­tion: a net­work of trains that criss­crosses the coun­try, car­ry­ing rich and poor, com­muters and va­ca­tion­ers, with 23 mil­lion pas­sen­gers a day board­ing 13,500 trains at more than 7,000 sta­tions.

The sud­den de­ci­sion to sus­pend all pas­sen­ger trains and in­ter­state buses left thou­sands stranded as states and cities be­gan to en­force pro­hi­bi­tions on gath­er­ings of more than four peo­ple.

Among those stuck were Sanjay Ku­mar and his father, Ashok, both daily wage la­bor­ers. They had been try­ing for two days to travel from Delhi to their home 420 miles away. They made it as far as Luc­know, the cap­i­tal of Ut­tar Pradesh, In­dia’s largest state, only to find that all of the trains were can­celed and al­most no shops were open.

His father had a fever, Sanjay Ku­mar said, and the two men were run­ning out of money. The po­lice, charged with im­ple­ment­ing the lock­down mea­sures, ad­mon­ished them to get off the streets. “I think the virus will kill us all,” Ku­mar said as he tried to hitch a ride from a pass­ing truck or bus.

In Hyderabad, a me­trop­o­lis in south­ern In­dia, nearly 300 sea­sonal con­struc­tion work­ers were trapped with no way to reach their homes about 400 miles away. Chakrad­har Bud­dha, an in­dige­nous rights ac­tivist in the city, said the group was run­ning out of food. The work­ers did not “an­tic­i­pate the to­tal break­down of trans­port,” Bud­dha said. “Now they are anx­ious and scared.”

In its race to slow the rate of in­fec­tion, In­dia is de­liv­er­ing an eco­nomic shock that will jeop­ar­dize liveli­hoods, pro­duc­ing an­other ur­gent chal­lenge.

The cur­rent mea­sures will have a “mas­sive eco­nomic im­pact,” Kaushik Basu, former chief econ­o­mist of the World Bank, said in a re­cent tele­vi­sion in­ter­view. “We have to pre­pare for that.”

Even if In­dia man­ages to avoid a deadly surge in in­fec­tions, there is a strong chance the coun­try is fac­ing “sev­eral months of pretty de­pressed eco­nomic con­di­tions” that will lead to a “se­vere liveli­hood cri­sis,” said Amit Ba­sole, an econ­o­mist at Azim Premji Univer­sity in Ban­ga­lore.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the In­dian work­force doesn’t have a steady job or ready source of sav­ings, added Ba­sole. “They’re ba­si­cally go­ing to see their in­comes dry up,” he said.

Ba­sole and other economists and ac­tivists are urg­ing the In­dian govern­ment to take steps to help the poor, in­clud­ing through emer­gency cash trans­fers and three months of free food sup­plies. The govern­ment has promised that a pack­age of re­lief mea­sures is com­ing but has not re­leased any de­tails.

Economists strug­gled to quan­tify the dis­lo­ca­tion caused by the fight against the pan­demic. “It’s ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to as­sess the eco­nomic im­pli­ca­tions of such a non­lin­ear event,” said Dhar­makirti Joshi, chief econ­o­mist at Crisil, an In­dian rat­ings agency.

The ef­fects of the lock­down are al­ready rip­pling through the econ­omy. Sev­eral ma­jor car man­u­fac­tur­ers in­clud­ing Re­nault, Hyundai and Honda Mo­tor have closed down fac­to­ries in In­dia at least through the end of the month.

The de­ci­sion to shut down the rail­ways is without prece­dent, said Arunen­dra Ku­mar, former chair­man of In­dian Rail­ways. The last time the sys­tem closed was dur­ing a strike in the mid-1970s, he said. Even dur­ing times of war, strife and famine, there was not a na­tion­wide stop­page.

“Never in my dreams could I have imag­ined a sit­u­a­tion in which stop­ping trains would be to our credit,” said Ku­mar. But “this virus does not see if you’re go­ing by train or by road or by air. It looks at your neg­li­gence and cap­i­tal­izes on that.”

At Luc­know’s Mal­haur rail­way sta­tion, nor­mally a chaotic crush of trav­el­ers, ve­hi­cles and ven­dors, there were only a few stray dogs and a clutch of po­lice­men guard­ing the bar­ri­caded en­trance Tuesday. Birds chirped in the still­ness.

“I’ve never seen such si­lence,” said Shub­hankit Gupta as he sur­veyed the scene. Gupta runs a small cafe near the sta­tion that is now shut­tered. “Of course, our busi­ness is suf­fer­ing, but life is pre­cious,” he said.

“If we don’t man­age these 21 days, the coun­try will be set back by 21 years.” In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi

JEWEL SAMAD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A man walks on a de­serted street lead­ing to the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence in New Delhi amid a govern­ment-im­posed lock­down seek­ing to slow the novel coro­n­avirus’s spread.

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