NEW DELHI: India’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the biggest in the world, will be extended until at least May 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Tuesday.
The current three-week-old lockdown of the nation of 1.3 billion people had been scheduled to end at midnight Tuesday.
“From the economic angle, we have paid a big price,” Modi said in a nationwide address. “But the lives of the people of India are far more valuable.”
South Asian nations have so far been relatively unscathed by the epidemic, with around 10,000 cases and 339 deaths in India, according to official figures.
But with some of the most crowded cities on the planet, there are fears that numbers could skyrocket and overwhelm shaky healthcare systems.
Some experts have also said that India has not conducted enough tests and that the true number of infections is much higher.
Several states including Maharashtra — home to Mumbai and which has the highest number of cases — Tamil Nadu and Odisha have already announced lockdown extensions.
But at the same time, the lockdown in place since March 25, with strict limits on activity, has been devastating for the economy — and for India’s poor.
Millions of daily wage labourers suddenly lost their jobs, forcing hundreds of thousands to travel hundreds of kilometres (miles) back to their home villages, often on foot.
Some died on the way, while others were shunned by locals when they made it back to their villages. One viral clip showed a group of migrants being hosed down with chemicals.
Others have been stranded in cities in cramped, unsanitary conditions where the virus could spread quickly.
New Delhi alone is providing hundreds of thousands of free meals.
Farmers have complained of a lack of workers to harvest crops while snarl-ups of thousands of trucks not allowed to move because of the lockdown have hampered food transport.
Farms, still the bedrock of the Indian economy, are heading into their most important harvest time of the year, earning money to finance many villages for months.
Reserve Bank of India governor Shaktikanta Das has called the coronavirus an “invisible assassin” that could wreak havoc on Asia’s third-biggest economy.
The national restaurants association, which said its members employed seven million people, warned Monday there could be “social unrest” if it did not receive financial relief.
The commerce ministry has also reportedly urged the government to consider opening more activities “with reasonable safeguards” even if the lockdown is extended.
Even before the pandemic, the Indian economy was stuttering with unemployment the highest for decades.
Some analysts have predicted growth could slump to 1.5-2.0 percent this year — way below the level needed to provide jobs for the millions coming into the labour market each month.
Modi’s announcement came 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 extended a tight lockdown in France by another month, but Italy and Austria are reopening some shops and Spain is restarting construction and factory work.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned against rushing headlong into lifting restrictions, stressing that only a vaccine can fully halt the spread.