India says it has no plan to extend coronavirus lockdown as poor struggle

People receive bags of dry rations that are distributed by the government in Jammu, India, on March 29, 2020.
People receive bags of dry rations that are distributed by the government in Jammu, India, on March 29, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India has no plans to extend a 21-day lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government said on Monday (March 30), as it struggled to keep essential supplies flowing and prevent tens of thousands of out-of-work people fleeing to the countryside.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country's 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, saying that was the only hope to stop the epidemic. But the order has left millions of impoverished Indians jobless and hungry.

Defying the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of workers who live on daily wages left big cities like Delhi and Mumbai on foot for their homes in the countryside, many with families.

They said they had no food or money.

Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba told Reuters partner, ANI, that there was no plan to extend the shutdown beyond the three weeks, rejecting reports that a prolonged closure was likely.

India has 1,071 cases of the coronavirus of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on Monday. The numbers are small compared with the United States, Italy and China, but health officials say India is weeks away from a major surge in cases that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

Neighbouring Nepal, however, announced it would extend its shutdown for another week beginning on Tuesday. The landlocked country has had only five cases of the virus and no deaths, but it is concerned the virus will spread as people start travelling.

"If the lockdown is not extended then the movement of people increases raising the risk of more virus cases," said Mr Surya Thapa, an aide to Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli.

A major concern in India is that the hundreds of thousands of workers going home will spread the virus deep into the hinterland, said a top health official.

 
 
 

"It's an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up like having migratory populations moving from one place to another. Like non-affected states, adjoining affected states," said Dr S.K. Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks.

The government on Sunday ordered the authorities in states to stop the migrant workers from moving and to set up shelters on highways where stranded people can get access to food and water until the lockdown is lifted.