NEW DELHI/BENGALURU (Reuters) – India’s 1.3 billion people were under an immense lockdown on Wednesday to prevent an explosion of coronavirus cases as the government struggled to deliver essential goods and calm nerves.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered everyone indoors for the next three weeks, saying this was the only way to avoid a disaster and effectively shutting down Asia’s third-largest economy.
But with less than four hours before the decree went into effect at midnight on Tuesday, crowds of people thronged shops to stock up on milk, rations and medicines even though Modi said these would be available throughout the lockdown.
Others including labourers and day workers headed home to the countryside from cities such as Delhi, many walking because public transport also stopped.
“My daughter needs allergy medicines regularly. The medicine shops are open but how do we reach there?” said Yash Goswami in the northern town of Moradabad.
“Who wants to risk a run-in with the police? They’re beating people up.”
India’s tally of 539 cases and nine deaths seems tiny compared with those in China, Italy and Spain, but health experts have warned that the world’s second most populous country faces a tidal wave of infections if tough steps are not taken.
The lockdown comes after evidence indicated it was spreading out into India’s countless small towns after a first wave in Delhi, the commercial hub Mumbai, and other big cities.
That has raised the prospect of a cash-strapped public health sector being overwhelmed. India has just 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, compared to 4.3 in China and 3.2 in Italy.
“The only way we can save ourselves is by social distancing, and staying inside our homes,” said Information Minister Prakash Javedkar. “A little bit of inconvenience now will save so many lives,”
India’s population is even more densely packed than China’s raising the risk of rapid transmission of the virus.
In New Delhi, Modi met his cabinet at his residence, with ministers sitting apart from each other in a large room.
The government is considering an economic stimulus package of more than 1.5 trillion rupees ($19.6 billion) to fight the downturn, two sources said. The economy was already growing at its weakest pace in more than a decade.
“Asking people to stay at home is necessary but the majority of the population can’t afford to sit at home without work and pay,” said Madhura Swaminathan, head of economic analysis at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bengaluru.
British bank Barclays pegged the loss to India at $120 billion or 4% of the GDP.
“We are shaving down our calendar year 2020 (January- December) GDP forecast from 4.5% to 2.5% and for financial year 2021( April 2020-March 2021) forecast to 3.5%,” Rahul Bajoria, chief India economist, said in a report.
Globally, there are over 420,000 cases of coronavirus spread across 196 countries, according to a Reuters tally. Almost 19,000 deaths are linked to the virus.
Other countries in South Asia – home to a quarter of the world’s population – are also struggling as they try to put up defences against the coronavirus.
Pakistan’s tally of cases rose to 1,000, with seven deaths, its health ministry said.
Authorities have shut down Sindh province, home to its largest city Karachi, even though Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was opposed to a full lockdown because the poor would suffer the most.
Sri Lanka has sealed itself off from the outside world, suspending all flights in and out of the island nation.
India, the world’s main supplier of generic drugs, on Wednesday banned the export of a malaria drug that is being tested as a coronavirus treatment, saying it had to meet domestic demand.