India is under the lockdown since March 25, with only essential services exempted, to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The Centre is mulling extending the nationwide lockdown beyond April 14 to contain the spread of COVID-19 following requests from several states and experts, government sources said on Tuesday, as the total number of coronavirus cases in India crossed the 5,000 mark.
With only a week left for the 21-day nationwide lockdown to end, sources, however, did not indicate if a final decision has been taken on the extension, and Joint Secretary in the Union health ministry Lav Aggarwal said, “no decision on extending lockdown as yet (taken), please don’t speculate.”
India is under the lockdown since March 25, with only essential services exempted, to contain the spread of coronavirus. While a PTI tally based on figures reported by various states as on Tuesday showed more than 5,000 testing positive across the country and at least 145 deaths, the Union Health Ministry’s evening update, however, showed 4,789 confirmed cases and 124 deaths.
According to an ILO report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has the potential to push around 40 crore informal sector workers in India deeper into poverty, with the lockdown and other containment measures affecting jobs and earnings.
However, several chief ministers have favoured the extension of the lockdown as they feel that the country can recover from the adverse impact of the shutdown on its economy but it was necessary to save lives from the fast-spreading virus, which has killed more than 76,500 people globally and afflicted over 13.6 lakh across 183 countries.
“A lot of state governments as well as experts are requesting the Central Government to extend the lockdown. The Central government is thinking in this direction,” a source said, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked countrymen to be ready for a long battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, and exhorted people to not feel tired or defeated while expressing confidence that India will emerge victorious in the fight.
Chairing a meeting of the council of ministers through video conferencing on Monday, Modi had clearly indicated that the lifting of the lockdown in one go is very unlikely while discussing the modalities of lifting it.
The Prime Minister also asked the ministers whether the restrictions should be lifted sector-wise or district-wise, a source said.
Also on Tuesday, a group of ministers (GoM) on COVID-19 recommended that all educational institutions should remain shut and all religious activities having public participation should be restricted till May 15 irrespective of whether the government extends the 21-day lockdown beyond April 14, official sources said after a meeting of the GoM.
The meeting, chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and attended by Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, also concluded that religious centres and shopping malls must not be allowed to resume normal functioning at least for four weeks from April 14.
Several chief ministers have also favoured the extension of the lockdown, and pitched for lifting of restrictions in a phased manner.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said his government will extend lockdown, if a need arises, while his counterpart in Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot said the state cannot withdraw the lockdown immediately, and it has to be done in a phased manner.
In a statement to mark two weeks of the lockdown, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu said the next one week is “critical” for evolving an exit strategy as the data regarding the spread of coronavirus will have a bearing on the decision to be taken by the government.
He also appealed to the public to abide with whatever decision the government ultimately takes, and cooperate with the same spirit that has been evident so far, even if it meant to continue with “some degree of hardship” beyond April 14.
Stating that it’s too early to take a call at present whether to lift the nationwide lockdown, Karnataka Medical Education Minister Sudhakar K, who is state in-charge of all matters related to COVID-19, however, favoured the extension of the lockdown in COVID-19 hotspots in the country by at least an additional two weeks.
“Where there are red alerts and zones, those zones, in my opinion, should continue to be in a lockdown situation at least for two weeks…till this month-end, I will request them (the Centre) to do this,” he said.
Telananga Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao on Monday appealed to Prime Minister Modi to extend the national lockdown imposed to contain COVID-19, saying it was essential to save lives. Agreeing that continuing the lockdown would adversely impact the economy, he, however, said ways can be found to recover from it once the threat of COVID-19 goes away but human lives cannot be saved.
Favouring extension, Rao said ,”we can recover from economic problem. But, we cannot recover the lives of the people… So, I propose at least for another one-two weeks. Extension should be at least for one or two weeks more. Then we can review.”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) report released in Geneva on Tyesday said,”in India, with a share of almost 90 per cent of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.
“Current lockdown measures in India, which are at the high end of the University of Oxford’s COVID-19 Government Response Stringency Index, have impacted these workers significantly, forcing many of them to return to rural areas,” it said in its updated report.
Since there is no vaccine to fight COVID-19, the government has stressed that social distancing is the only way to check the spread of the virus. Lockdown is considered the best way to keep people indoors. Inter-state travel by public transport, including trains and buses, is banned, and so is domestic and international air travel.
Meanwhile, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) has urged 10 states to allow sale of alcoholic beverages saying that a blanket ban during the lockdown to contain coronavirus has resulted in sale of illicit and spurious liquor while causing burden on exchequer.
It said the need to close on-shops (bars) is well understood in light of social distancing, but noted that the nationwide lockdown has resulted in the shutdown of all wholesale and retail shops selling alcoholic beverages also.
The CIABC, which is the apex body of the Indian alcoholic beverage industry, has sent letters on Monday to chief ministers of 10 states — Delhi, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.