NEW DELHI (AFP) – Hundreds of millions of Indians were ordered into lockdowns Sunday in the world’s second-most populous nation, which stepped up measures to halt the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.
Crowds gathered on balconies across the country in the afternoon to clap, ring bells and blow horns in a heart-warming tribute to the health care and emergency workers on the frontlines battling the COVID-19 illness.
The raft of state shutdowns in the nation of 1.3 billion people came during a 14-hour voluntary curfew that Prime Minister Narendra Modi said would test India’s ability to fight the pandemic.
“This is the start of a long fight,” Modi tweeted as the curfew came to an end.
The people of this country have announced it today that we can take on and defeat as big a challenge as possible if we decide.”
Normally bustling streets in the capital New Delhi and financial hub of Mumbai were mostly deserted as many people stayed indoors.
With the end of the voluntary curfew the government appealed to states late Sunday to impose mandatory lockdowns on virus-affected districts.
A growing number of states and territories, including the capital New Delhi, heeded the call and banned all activity except for essential services.
Delhi, with a population of almost 20 million, will seal its land borders from early Monday, and close shops and private sector offices until March 31.
Other states imposed partial or full lockdowns, with many closing borders, restricting movement and halting most public transport.
Some, like West Bengal with a population of more than 90 million, locked down major cities but not rural areas.
Indian Railways cancelled all services except suburban and goods trains until March 31.
Incoming international flights were already barred for a week, while schools, entertainment facilities and monuments such as the iconic Taj Mahal have been shut.
The curfew – seen as a rehearsal for longer lockdowns – came as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in India surged past 360, with seven deaths.
Experts say a lack of testing may be hiding the true scale of the health crisis.
Testing for the virus was expanded to private laboratories and will now include asymptomatic people who had contact with confirmed cases, officials said.
Modi urged Indians to thank medical workers and other emergency personnel by clapping or banging pots and pans for five minutes at 5 pm – and many in the cities responded with enthusiasm.
Neighbourhoods silent during the curfew burst into life as the sounds of clapping, cookware being hit and the bellow of conch shells – an auspicious Hindu ritual – filled the air from people’s balconies.
“The enemy is there, invisible and elusive… We are trying to defeat it. We are at war, a public health war certainly,” schoolteacher Sumita Dutta told AFP in Kolkata as she clapped her hands in front of her home.
South Asia is the world’s most densely populated region, while India has an overburdened public health system that suffers from a lack of doctors and hospitals.
Experts warn that the country would not escape the highly infectious disease.
“We are in for a very long fight,” warned virologist Shahid Jameel of biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance.
In Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of the world’s biggest slums, residents said there was growing fears about the virus.
“We live by adjusting with each other in small confined spaces. But now we are not allowed to step out at all and police officials are enforcing it strictly. So it’s a challenging situation,” Raju Shaikh told AFP.