The nationwide lockdown to contain the deadly coronavirus looks set to be extended by two more weeks till April-end after a consensus emerged among states on Saturday for continuing the curbs amid the tally of confirmed infections crossing 8,000 with a record increase of over 1,000 cases within 24 hours.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked state governments to take steps to curb the lockdown violations and ensure adherence to social distancing, he also announced a shift in focus from ‘Jaan hai to jahaan hai’ (health is wealth) to ‘Jaan bhi, jahaan bhi’ (lives as well as livelihoods), which many saw as indications towards relaxations for certain economic activities, including for industrial and agriculture sector.
The next 3-4 weeks would be critical to determine the impact of steps taken till now to curb the virus spread, Modi told the chief ministers.
During their interaction, several chief ministers demanded financial and fiscal relief from the Centre to fight the pandemic, while Modi suggested measures to incentivise direct marketing of farm produce to help farmers, among other steps to help the country remain healthy and to prosper too. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the states have demanded Rs 10 lakh crore package.
Modi also said the crisis is an opportunity to become self-reliant and turn the nation into an economic powerhouse.
Maharashtra, which became the third state to announce an extension in the lockdown after Odisha and Punjab even before an official extension to the nationwide lockdown, was much more clearer in announcing that areas identified as hotspots of the virus spread would see stricter curbs while restrictions would be relaxed in unaffected areas.
After attending Modi’s interaction with chief ministers, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa said the second phase of the two-week lockdown would not be the same as the ongoing three-week one, which entered its 18th day and was originally scheduled to last until April 14.
“The Prime Minister said during the next fifteen days lockdown will be relaxed in graded manner… Agriculture and industrial sectors will be given relaxation. Government offices will be allowed to function with partial strength. He (Modi) will announce such measures soon,” Yediyurappa said.
Separately, sources said all central ministers have been asked to resume office from Monday and put together plans for post-lockdown period to kick-start the economy. All ministries have also been directed that joint secretary and above rank officers will resume work in respective departments and one-third of the essential staff members in every ministry need to be present.
While government officials said guidelines for the second phase of lockdown would be announced in next few days, the Union Health Ministry said testing and treatment infrastructures were being augmented on a daily basis and asserted that the number of confirmed cases could have reached 8.2 lakh by April 15 in the absence of a lockdown and other containment measures.
In its evening update as on 5 PM, the Ministry put the number of confirmed cases so far across the country at 7,529 with 242 deaths. These results are from nearly 1.7 lakh tests conducted so far across the country. According to the Ministry, 1,035 new cases and 40 deaths were reported in 24 hours till Saturday afternoon.
However, a PTI tally of numbers reported by various states as on 6.30 PM showed at least 8,016 positive coronavirus cases and 261 deaths. More than 800 people have been cured and discharged so far.
Fresh cases were reported from various places, including in Maharashtra, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
While Maharashtra saw its tally of confirmed cases rising to at least 1,666, Mumbai alone has more than 1,100 cases now. Tamil Nadu and Delhi have also seen their respective numbers cross the 1,000-mark, while Rajasthan has over 600 cases. The states with over 400 cases included Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
The death toll in Maharashtra alone has reached 110.
Announcing an extension to the lockdown till April 30 soon after attending Modi’s interaction with chief ministers, Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray said that the lockdown can be relaxed in certain areas while in others it will become stricter. The state’s Health Minister Rajesh Tope said the lockdown can be extended even beyond April if norms are flouted.
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Modi also suggested specific measures for agriculture and allied sector including modification of APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) laws to facilitate sale of farm produce. He also referred to the newly launched ‘Aarogya Setu’ app — which can tell an individual whether he or she has come in close vicinity of an infected person or area, as “an essential tool in our fight against COVID-19” which can subsequently act as an e-pass to facilitate travel from one place to another.
Modi, who himself was seen wearing a white mask during the video conference, also condemned attacks on health professionals and incidents of misbehaviour with students from North-East and Kashmir. He also said measures are being taken to ensure availability of protective gear and critical equipment for all front-line workers.
He assured the states that the country has adequate supplies of essential medicines and gave a stern message against black marketing and hoarding.
Observing that the combined efforts of the Centre and states have helped reduce the impact of COVID-19, he said the situation is rapidly evolving and constant vigilance is paramount.
On the exit plan from the lockdown, Modi said there seems to be a consensus amongst the states on an extension by another two weeks, but underlined that the government wants to not only save lives but also livelihoods.
“While announcing the lockdown, I had said ‘jaan hai to jahan hai’… Most people in the country understood it and discharged their responsibilities by remaining indoors. And now it is imperative to focus on both aspects, ‘Jaan bhi Jahan Bhi’, for India’s bright future, and prosperous and healthy India,” Modi said.
While Modi asked states to curb violations to the lockdown conditions, the Union Home Ministry separately has written to the West Bengal state administration, flagging a “gradual dilution” of lockdown in the state including by allowing permission to hold religious gatherings and keep open shops of non-essential goods.
In another communication to all states and union territories, the Union Health Ministry has asked them to prohibit the use and spitting of smokeless tobacco in public places as spitting in public places could enhance the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Ever since its emergence in China last December, more than 17 lakh people have tested positive for this deadly virus globally, while more than 1 lakh people have died. The US reported more than 2,000 deaths in a single day on Friday, while France also reported over 1,000 deaths in a day. An estimated 3.4 lakh people are considered to have recovered from COVID-19 so far.