Indians have crowded grocery stores and chemists in a struggle for essential items after Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a total lockdown for three weeks to fight a coronavirus pandemic, one of the toughest such measures worldwide.
India’s tally of 536 cases and 10 deaths is dwarfed by China, Italy and Spain but Modi and health experts have warned the nation of 1.3 billion people faces a tidal wave of infections if harsh steps are not taken, and predicted more than a million people could be infected by mid-May.
People in the key cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru rushed to stock up after Modi decreed the 21-day shutdown in a televised speech on Tuesday, barely four hours before it took effect at midnight.
As states shut their borders, long queues of trucks carrying milk, fruits and vegetables snaked down highways, even though Modi said essential services would be maintained countrywide.
Disruptions to online services added to people’s woes.
Walmart Inc’s Flipkart has suspended services, the Indian e-commerce firm said in a notice on its website as the lockdown began. Amazon India’s pantry service, which delivers groceries, was also not available in several cities.
Modi’s sweeping action aims to rein in the spread of the virus in India’s many small towns after a first wave of infections in Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities.
Cases reported from the remote parts of the western state of Maharashtra have fuelled concerns about the ability of the public health system to cope.
India has just 0.5 hospital beds for every 1000 people, compared with 4.3 in China and 3.2 in Italy.
Nobody would be allowed to leave home for the next three weeks, Modi said.
“Every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown,” he said, warning India’s development would be set back decades if it did not shut down to fight the virus.
But some experts worried about the damage caused by the shutdown.
“The need of the hour is an economic package,” said Madhura Swaminathan of the Indian Statistical Institute in Bengaluru.
“Asking people to stay at home is necessary but that won’t be enough for the majority of the population who cannot afford to sit at home without work and pay.”
India has found 562 cases of the coronavirus and 11 people have died.