India’s national coronavirus loop, the world’s largest, will be extended until at least May 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Tuesday.
The nation’s three-week-long 1.3-billion-day nationwide closure was scheduled to end at midnight on Tuesday.
“From an economic point of view, we have paid a heavy price,” Modi said in a national speech. “But the lives of the Indian people are much more precious.”
South Asian countries have so far been relatively free from the epidemic, with around 10,000 cases and 339 deaths in India, according to official figures.
But with some of the most populous cities on the planet, there is concern that the numbers will skyrocket and overwhelm precarious health systems.
Some experts also said that India had not done enough testing and that the actual number of infections was much higher.
Several states, including Maharashtra – which is home to Mumbai and has the highest number of cases – Tamil Nadu and Odisha have already announced lockout extensions.
The poor of India
But at the same time, the lockdown in place since March 25, with strict activity limits, has been devastating to the economy – and to the poor in India.
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Millions of daily workers suddenly lost their jobs, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) to return to their home villages, often on foot.
Some died along the way, while others were rejected by residents when they returned to their villages. A viral clip showed a group of migrants sprayed with chemicals.
Others have been stranded in cities in cramped and unsanitary conditions where the virus could spread quickly.
New Delhi alone offers hundreds of thousands of free meals.
Farmers complained about the lack of workers to harvest the crops, while traffic jams of thousands of trucks that were not allowed to move due to the blockage hampered food transportation.
The farms, still the foundation of the Indian economy, are heading for their most important harvest period of the year, earning money to finance many villages for months.
Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das has called the coronavirus “an invisible killer” that could wreak havoc on Asia’s third largest economy.
The national restaurant association, which said its members employ seven million people, warned on Monday that there could be “social unrest” if it did not receive financial assistance.
The Ministry of Commerce has also reportedly urged the government to consider opening more activities “with reasonable guarantees” even if the foreclosure were extended.
Even before the pandemic, the Indian economy stuttered, unemployment being the highest in decades.
Some analysts have predicted that growth could fall to 1.5-2.0% this year – well below the level needed to provide jobs for the millions of people who enter the workforce each month.
Modi’s announcement comes as debate rages in countries around the world on how to lift restrictions while ensuring that there is no renewed spike in new infections.
French President Emmanuel Macron has extended France’s tight lockdown by a month, but Italy and Austria are reopening some stores and Spain is resuming construction and factory work.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned of any haste in lifting the restrictions, stressing that only a vaccine can completely stop the spread.