India’s normally bustling streets are quiet. Delivery drivers wear gloves and face masks. Even the country’s unrelenting construction has come to a halt.
It’s all part of India’s unprecedented 21-day bid to stop the coronavirus pandemic in its tracks with a nationwide lockdown.
India is the world’s second-most populous country and has the fifth-biggest economy, with trade connections all over the world. Yet despite its size, the country of 1.34 billion appears to have avoided the full hit of the pandemic. To date, India has only 492 confirmed cases of coronavirus and nine deaths. By contrast, South Korea – which has a population only 3.8% the size of India’s – has more than 9,000 cases.
China, where the outbreak was first identified, has more than 81,000 confirmed cases in a population of 1.39 billion.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained there is no sign of community spread, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has praised India’s swift response, which has included grounding domestic and international commercial flights and suspending all tourist visas.
On Tuesday night, Modi ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown starting at midnight Wednesday. The order, the largest of its type yet to be issued globally, means all Indians must stay at home and all nonessential services such as public transport, malls and market will be shut down.
But fears are growing that the country remains susceptible to a wider, potentially more damaging outbreak. Experts have cautioned that India is not testing enough people to know the true extent of the issue – and have questioned the viability and sustainability of a nationwide lockdown.
In an interview with CNN last week, the WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said India had taken all the necessary steps to prepare for the virus, and had been communicating well with the public.
“Having said that, of course, we always have to prepare for a worse outcome,” Swaminathan said. “It’s better to be overprepared and to be overcautious than to be caught off guard.”
How bad is the outbreak in India?
So far, India has confirmed relatively few cases – but the country is also testing relatively few people.