India eases lockdown despite record rise in number of coronavirus cases

Joe Wallen
Passengers arrive at New Delhi railway station as lockdown travel restrictions are eased - Sajjad Hussain/AFP

The world’s largest lockdown has been relaxed today, despite India registering a record number of new coronavirus cases over the weekend.

As the Indian Government attempts to kick-start an ailing economy, which lost over £250 billion between March 25 and May 1, private businesses are now allowed to fully reopen and inter-state movement of goods and workers permitted.

Despite a predicted surge in coronavirus cases, public health experts welcomed the decision saying it will alleviate an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the country under a sudden, draconian lockdown over two months ago, with Indians only allowed to leave their homes to purchase essential groceries or medical supplies.

Both public and private transport was banned and those who ventured out of their homes risked arrest or a beating from police.

These measures had a catastrophic impact on the nation’s labour force, with the livelihoods of India’s poor most adversely impacted.

90% of the nation’s workforce are employed informally meaning they do not possess a contract and are usually paid daily in cash, often depending on fluctuations in the availability of work.

When the lockdown began on March 25 they were suddenly confined to their homes without sick pay. 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone.

Worst affected are the approximately 100 million internal migrant labourers who form the backbone of the urban economy, typically migrating from small towns and villages to cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.

Whilst their work is varied, it is almost always unskilled and occurs in the informal sector - driving an auto rickshaw, labouring on a construction site or running a street stall.

Consequently, not only were the migrants suddenly stranded far away from their homes, but also made unemployed.

In mid-April, a shocking study by an umbrella group of NGOs found that 96% of marooned migrant workers had already burnt through their meagre savings and were not receiving any food aid.

Across India, protests erupted as starving migrant labourers were forced to beg and rely on charity for a meal every few days.

Many, fearing they would starve to death in the cities, attempted to bypass police checkpoints and walk up to 1,000km to their home villages in the biggest movement of people since Partition.

Hundreds died en route as they desperately tried to flee, suffering from heat stroke as temperatures soared over 40°C and dying in road accidents.

Only in terms of limiting the number of coronavirus deaths can Mr. Modi’s nationwide lockdown be seen as a success.

Keeping Indians indoors has prevented up to 78,000 additional fatalities, according to the Public Health Foundation of India.

It also provided valuable time for India’s chronically underfunded and understaffed public healthcare system to acquire more beds and stockpile essential medicines.

While some relaxations were made for government employees and the self-employed in May, Mr. Modi has been under increasing pressure to allow private sector labourers to return to work. 

“India really has no choice. Lockdowns are both less effective and more costly in a country like India,” explains Ramanan Laxminarayan, the Director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy.

“The space to practise social distancing is a luxury available only to the rich as is the ability to go for weeks without leaving the house to earn a living.

“A lockdown was suggested as a way of buying time to fight the virus, and not as a long term strategy to contain Covid19.”

The number of coronavirus infections is expected to cross 200,000 tomorrow, with India already reporting the seventh-highest caseload in the world. The last 24-hours saw yet another one-day record number of cases: a total of 8,392.

However, over 60% of active cases are in just five cities - New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Thane. State governments have been asked to maintain the previous rules in “containment zones”; districts that have reported large numbers of infections.

In his monthly address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned Indians not to become “complacent”.

“The road ahead is a long one. We are fighting a pandemic about which little was previously known,” Mr. Modi cautioned.

The nationwide nightly curfew will remain but will be shortened by two hours, being in place between 9pm and 5am.

Shopping centres, places of worship, hotels and restaurants will open from June 8, abiding by social distancing rules.

Schools and colleges will open in July while international travel, metro services, cinemas, sporting events and gyms opening later, in an undated third phase.

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